PA Public Utility Commission responds to actions of NTSB regarding investigation of R.M. Palmer explosion

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission has responded to a statement issued today from the National Transportation Safety Board, related to the ongoing NTSB investigation of a March 2023 explosion at the R.M. Palmer candy factory in West Reading, Pennsylvania:

The NTSB issued a subpoena to the PUC to obtain documents considered Confidential Security Information (CSI), which we cannot legally release under state law. The PUC is committed to our safety mission, including collaboration with other investigative agencies, and we continue exploring resolutions for this unique situation. This matter has been referred to the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General to represent the PUC as a Commonwealth agency and defend Pennsylvania’s CSI Act.

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The PUC has given the NTSB options for inspecting the original unredacted reports at the PUC’s Harrisburg office or signing a nondisclosure agreement, as provided for under state law. The NTSB has refused – demanding instead that they be given copies of the full unredacted internal, nonpublic reports, which contain CSI. We have been discussing this issue for several months, with staff and the chairs of the NTSB and PUC, seeking a resolution. The NTSB has steadfastly insisted that Pennsylvania’s CSI Act is preempted by federal law.

Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Confidential Security Information Disclosure Protection Act (CSI Act) prohibits an agency from releasing, publishing or otherwise disclosing a public utility record or portion thereof which contains confidential security information. CSI is extremely sensitive information, detailing key utility infrastructure along with threats, risks, and vulnerabilities. Under the current CSI Act there are no exceptions for investigative agencies – like the NTSB – which is why the PUC has offered other alternatives.

Pennsylvania public officials and/or government employees who release CSI face criminal penalties – including imprisonment, fines, and removal from office or loss of employment – and the PUC has strict policies and controls for handling CSI.

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Members of the PUC’s Safety Division regularly work side-by-side with other local, state, and federal agencies investigating major incidents – including more than 1,300 man hours of investigative time already spent on the West Reading investigation – and we believe we can contribute a great deal to these types of investigations. We are committed to continuing our collaborative work with the NTSB and other agencies.

This is a unique situation where a federal agency is demanding that the PUC violate state law. In the more than 16 year history of the Pennsylvania CSI Act, we have not encountered this situation with the NTSB or any other federal investigative agency.

Discussions between investigating agencies are necessary and important for conducting thorough and complete investigations, but CSI is unique. It is unfortunate that the NTSB has rejected possible solutions to this issue, but we continue working to resolve this impasse.

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