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Railroad owes money, safety plan, Vandergrift company says 5 months after derailment

| Sunday, July 13, 2014, 12:39 a.m.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
MSI owner Henry 'Duke' McLaughlin stands on his property adjacent to the curve in Norfolk Southern railroad tracks in Vandergrift plant that was the site of a major derailment in February 2014, as seen on Tuesday, July 1, 2014.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
An overturned tanker car and smashed railroad ties still sit on Norfolk Southern railroad property adjacent to MSI in Vandergrift on Tuesday, July 1, 2014.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
MSI owner Henry 'Duke' McLaughlin stands on damaged railroad tracks on his property adjacent to Norfolk Southern railroad tracks in Vandergrift, the site of a major derailment in February, as seen on Tuesday, July 1, 2014. The large blue tarpaulin in the background still covers where tanker cars slammed into his building.
Eric Felack | Valley News Dispatch
MSI owner Henry 'Duke' McLaughlin stands next to a machine that is removing surface defects from titanium inside his Vandergrift plant on Tuesday, July 1, 2014.

Five months after two runaway train cars tore into MSI Corp.'s building in Vandergrift, a blue tarp remains draped over the 35-foot hole.

Although no one was injured, MSI, a specialty metals processor with 65 employees, sustained major damage to its building in the Feb. 13 derailment. Now, company officials want two things:

• Confirmation from railroad operator Norfolk Southern that it will cover the cost of damages, estimated in excess of $5 million.

• A safety plan for the sharp curve in the track, which could include a reduction in the speed limit or a realignment of the tracks.

“We haven't received a commitment in writing from Norfolk Southern that they will agree to pay for anything,” said Matt Logue, MSI's attorney. “The railroad is legally obligated to make MSI whole and to take action to prevent another derailment in the future.”

Norfolk Southern declined comment on MSI's monetary claim but addressed the safety issues in Vandergrift.

“Moving freight safely over Norfolk Southern's rail network at Vandergrift and across all 22 states where we operate, is our first priority,” said Susan Terpay, a Norfolk Southern spokeswoman.

MSI President Henry “Duke” McLaughlin, whose company has been at the former Wean United foundry along First Street since the early 1990s, said, “this has already happened two times during my tenure.”

The first derailment, on Feb. 28, 2000, clipped one of MSI's buildings and damaged the HVAC system, company officials said. A broken rail was the cause, resulting in 22 cars jumping the tracks.

The crash in February, likely the result of a broken railroad spike, sent 21 cars careening from the track and occurred at a difficult time for MSI. The company is completing a formal plan with its creditors to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which it entered in June 2013. The company is due to emerge from bankruptcy this year, according to its attorneys.

But the safety factor at the site looms large.

Although the train that derailed in February carried a type of heavy oil that doesn't easily burn, the amount of crude oil transported by rail and the dangers of doing so have increased. Of greatest concern is Bakken shale crude, which can be explosive and was responsible for the death of 47 people in a runaway train crash in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in July 2013.

McLaughlin said MSI might need to cease operations in parts of its plant closest to the rails. In some areas, the building is yards from the line.

“If that material was flammable, that (February) derailment would have been catastrophic,” Logue said.

At the very least, McLaughlin would like for the 30-mph speed limit to be reduced and a reconfiguration of the turn in the track.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, there is no safety problem at the site.

Administration spokesman Mike England said his agency inspected that stretch of track in April and found no issues.

“Also, that area had a major railroad tie renewal in summer 2012, and new rail was installed in the curve in 2013,” he said.

As for the curve, England said there are many similarly sharp curves throughout the country.

Norfolk Southern's Terpay stressed that the railroad has rigorous scheduled track maintenance procedures and has an extensive network of detectors to measure the condition of each passing rail car so the company can identify potential problems.

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or mthomas@tribweb.com.

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