East Palestine train derailment hearing highlights safety recommendations

June 25, 2024

Investigation into East Palestine train derailment continues

Residents of East Palestine, Ohio, are set to learn more about the Norfolk Southern freight train derailment as a new hearing commences Tuesday in their hometown.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will discuss the ongoing investigation and issue recommendations to prevent future incidents, as reported by Josh Funk, Tom Krisher, and Patrick Orsagos for AP News.

On February 3, 2023, dozens of freight cars derailed on the outskirts of East Palestine, near the Pennsylvania border.

Eleven of the derailed cars carried hazardous materials, prompting an evacuation due to fears of an explosion.

Officials intentionally released and burned toxic vinyl chloride from five rail cars, creating a significant health risk.

Causes and contributors to the derailment

Early in the investigation, the NTSB identified an overheated bearing on one of the railcars as a likely cause of the crash, which was not detected by trackside sensors in time.

Subsequent hearings have explored additional factors such as widespread rail job cuts and rushed inspections.

The decision to blow open and burn the vinyl chloride cars has also been scrutinized.

NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy told Congress that the controversial vent-and-burn operation was determined to be unnecessary.

Experts from OxyVinyls, the manufacturer of the vinyl chloride, testified they were certain a feared chemical reaction was not occurring.

However, Ohio’s governor, first responders, and hazardous materials experts believed an explosion was imminent, making the burn seem like the best option despite potential health risks.

Legislative and industry responses

Following the derailment, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by Ohio’s senators, proposed reforms including requiring two-person crews and setting standards for inspections and detectors.

This bill, however, stalled in the Senate.

Federal regulators have also pushed for railroads to make safety changes, including signing onto an anonymous government hotline for safety concerns.

Norfolk Southern has pledged over $100 million in aid to East Palestine residents and hired a nuclear industry consultant to recommend changes.

The company, along with other major freight railroads, has promised to install more trackside sensors and improve data analysis to prevent future incidents.

The Association of American Railroads stated the industry would review the NTSB report and seek additional safety improvements.

New safety measures for first responders

The NTSB has also investigated the difficulties faced by first responders who were initially unaware of the train’s cargo.

Federal officials have finalized a new rule requiring railroads to inform first responders about train contents immediately after a derailment.

The industry reports that over two million first responders now have access to this information via the AskRail app.

Norfolk Southern recently announced an industrywide examination of vent-and-burn decision-making processes as part of a settlement with the federal government.

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