Ohio finds “preventable” and “tragic” derailment of train carrying dangerous chemicals Overheated wheel bearingThat was 253 degrees above the air temperature, National Transportation Safety Board officials said Thursday.
NTSP Issued a preliminary report Pep. 3 in East Palestine, west of the Pennsylvania State Line, providing clues as to what caused a 150-car Norfolk Southern Railway train to crash.
NTSB Chairman Jennifer Homandy also announced that in addition to its regular plenary meeting in Washington DC, it will conduct an investigative field investigation in the East Palestine area in the spring.
“We usually don’t have an investigation [field] investigations, but we believe it will help us get more factual information and buy into the changes that are needed,” Homandy told NBC News following a press conference.
“I think the community deserves to hear some answers, and having it out there will allow them to see and hear what’s being said,” he said.
According to the NTSB report, a flaw detector built into the railway sent a warning message to the train’s crew after registering the wheel temperature in car 23 as 253 degrees Fahrenheit above ambient.
According to Norfolk Southern’s policies, the engineer must stop the train if it exceeds 170 degrees.
The engineer hit the brakes, but before the train could come to a full stop, the 23rd car derailed, bringing the others with it, and an automatic emergency break kicked in.
Afterward, “the crew observed fire and smoke and notified Cleveland East dispatch of the derailment,” the report said.
NTSB officials said none of the crew members on the nearly 18,000-ton, 9,300-foot train showed any signs of a track defect or error.
“We have no indication that they did anything wrong,” Homandy told NBC News. “We believe they acted appropriately at this time, and there is no evidence otherwise.”
But the cause of the bearing failure will be the focus of the ongoing investigation, he said during the media briefing.
“You can’t wait for them to fail,” Homandy told reporters. “Problems need to be caught early so a disaster like this doesn’t happen again.”
Homandi also delivered a message to the residents of East Palestine: “I’m so sorry for the trauma you’re going through. It’s devastating.”
She rejected the notion that the derailment was an inevitable accident.
“I can tell you this: it’s 100% preventable,” Homandy said. “We call things accidents. No accident. Every incident we investigate is preventable. So our hearts go out to you.”
The Norfolk Southern train was traveling from Madison, Illinois to Conway, Pennsylvania. A previous detector en route registered a temperature of 103 degrees above ambient, which Norfolk Southern deemed not dangerous enough to stop the protocol.
The company said in a statement on Thursday that it was cooperating with investigators and that its findings “trigger an alarm at the lowest temperature range in the rail industry.”
“Under the supervision of the Federal Railway Administration, the company has inspected all track finders in the incident area and found them to be functioning as designed,” the statement added. “Out of an abundance of caution, Norfolk Southern is now testing all of the nearly 1,000 wayside heat detectors in its system – on top of the detectors’ regular inspection of every 30 days.”
The initial report also described why Norfolk Southern wanted to release and burn a chemical called vinyl chloride days after the derailment. Temperatures were rising inside the tank car carrying the liquid, the report said, adding that the chemical had undergone a reaction and posed a risk of explosion.
In total, the train carried 115,580 gallons of vinyl chloride, a highly flammable carcinogen used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) packaging materials and other products.
During a controlled release, responders dug ditches to contain the liquid as it evaporated and burned.
The eastern Palestinian city has been wracked with fear and anxiety since the train derailed and burned. State officials in Ohio have reported thousands of dead fish in nearby streams. Some locals Sued Norfolk Southern.
The full NTSB investigation, expected to take 12 to 18 months to complete, “will focus on wheelsets and bearings; tank car design and derailment damage; review of accident response, including venting and incineration of vinyl chloride; rail car design and maintenance practices and procedures; NS [Norfolk Southern] Defect detection application along the way; and NS Railcar Inspection Procedures,” its initial report said.
A union representing railroad workers said Wednesday that, in its view, Norfolk Southern has prioritized speed — through a system called “precision-planned railroading” that aims to keep trains moving — over safety.
“Somehow ‘we tried to warn you,’ just didn’t cut it,” the Transportation Communications Association said in a statement.
“Railroads are increasingly relying on automated wayfinding tools to supplement human inspections,” the report continued. “Railroads have sought waivers after waivers to allow in-person inspections instead of personal temperature detectors.”
On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered the railway company to find and clean up contaminated soil and water. On Wednesday, Norfolk Southern said it would temporarily remove the tracks and excavate the underlying soil instead of simply repairing the soil as originally planned.
Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro said his office had filed a criminal referral over the derailment, while officials in Ohio signaled that legal action may also be taken against the company.
Norfolk Southern continues to highlight the scale of its cleanup efforts and the funding it has committed to the East Palestinian Territory, including $3.4 million in financial aid to local families and $1 million in community assistance funding.
But the full impact of the derailment could take years to feel, said environmentalist Erin Brockovich.
“Don’t sign anything from the Norfolk Southern Railroad. They are not your friend,” Brockovich told MSNBC from eastern Palestine on Thursday. “We can take it for granted at this point that municipal water is safe. But tomorrow will not be like that. These chemicals will degrade through the system over decades.