NTSB reveals results of investigation into toxic Ohio train derailment 

National News

By Jeff Louderback 
Contributing Writer 

More than a year after a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals derailed and exploded in East Palestine, Ohio, the National Transportation Safety Board returned to the village to discuss its investigation into the disaster and offer recommendations to prevent future calamities. 

NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy opened the Tuesday hearing by stating, “On behalf of the entire agency, I want to recognize the significant impact this derailment has had.” 

Some people have downplayed the effects of the derailment and the decision to vent and burn because there were no deaths, but “the absence of fatality or injury doesn’t mean the presence of safety,” Homendy said. 

On Feb. 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern Railway freight train carrying 151 cars derailed, spilling hazardous chemicals, including vinyl chloride, onto the ground and into the air. 

Burning vinyl chloride also produces a small amount of phosgene gas, which was used as a chemical weapon in World War I. When 38 of the rail cars derailed, a fire ensued, damaging an additional 12 cars. 

Eleven cars carrying hazardous materials derailed, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. 

Fears escalated in the immediate aftermath of the wreck. 

To avoid an explosion that officials said would send shrapnel flying, vinyl chloride was intentionally released and burned on Feb. 6, 2023, sending a massive cloud of black smoke into the sky that could be seen for miles. 

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine lifted an evacuation order on Feb. 8, 2023, saying it was safe for residents to return to their homes. After that, officials from federal and state agencies repeatedly said tests showed that the air and water were safe in East Palestine and surrounding communities. 

However, residents are still reporting headaches, vomiting, burning eyes, rashes, and other ailments. 

The Cause 

At the hearing, the NTSB confirmed that a trackside sensor in Salem, Ohio – located 20 miles west of East Palestine – didn’t detect a burning rail bearing suspected of causing the derailment. 

The NTSB also announced that firefighters didn’t receive details of what the train was carrying for more than an hour after the derailment. 

There are currently no standards for directing railroads as to how to respond to bearing failure alarms, the NTSB stated at the hearing. 

NTSB staff members said they will recommend that the Federal Railroad Administration create rules that detail how railroads should respond to the alarm. 

Other NTSB recommendations include establishing a national database to track overheated wheel bearings and increasing training for Ohio volunteer firefighters. 

The investigative agency also said that railway companies should update the standard for placards displayed on tankers that show what hazardous materials they are carrying. 

Currently, placards must only be able to withstand weather elements for 30 days, and there are no mandates for them to survive derailments or fires. 

Vent and Burn Unnecessary 

During the hearing, the NTSB also confirmed that the vent and burn after the derailment wasn’t necessary. 

Norfolk Southern and its contractors withheld accurate information from OxyVinyls, the company that made the vinyl chloride, which compromised the integrity of the vent-and-burn decision, according to the NTSB. 

Norfolk Southern contractors who recommended blowing the vinyl tank cars open and burning the contents kept encouraging the vent-and-burn strategy even though evidence showed that the tank cars were cooling after the derailment, NTSB officials said at the hearing. 

At NTSB hearings earlier this year, OxyVinyls officials said that they were certain a chemical reaction that would have caused the tank cars to explode was not occurring. 

Last week, Norfolk Southern said it plans to lead an industrywide initiative to improve how vent-and-burn decisions are made. 

The announcement was released as part of the company’s estimated $310 million settlement with the federal government. 

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