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Investigation update released into hazardous train derailment as rail company pulls out of meeting with locals

16 February 2023

The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released an update on its investigation into the February 3 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Several train cars carrying hazardous materials were involved in the derailment which caused a large fire to break out that sent a cloud of smoke over the town, forcing an evacuation.

Image: NTSB
Image: NTSB

In its update, the NSTB confirmed that the train, which belonged to the Norfolk Southern railway company, derailed at approximately 20:54 local time. As a result of the derailment, 38 rail cars derailed and a fire ensued which damaged an additional 12 cars. There were 20 total hazardous material cars in the train consist – 11 of which derailed. A list of what the derailed rail cars were carrying is available online. There were no reported fatalities or injuries.

The NTSB said it is conducting a safety investigation to determine the probable cause of the derailment and issue any safety recommendations, if necessary, to prevent future derailments.

In the days following the incident in East Palestine, a village with 5,000 residents located around 45 miles north east of Pittsburgh on the Ohio-Pennsylvania state border, there were fears that the fire and smoke would spread toxic chemicals across the town. Five of the rail cars that derailed contained the chemical vinyl chloride which had been linked to several forms of cancer.

On February 5, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine released an urgent warning advising locals within one mile of the derailment to evacuate due to a “drastic temperature change” in a rail car that could cause a “catastrophic tanker failure”. Local officials said that while firefighters were working hard to prevent an explosion, there was a possibility that a blast could send shrapnel scattering in multiple directions and up to a mile away.

Emergency personnel were able to drain the hazardous cars of vinyl chloride and burn off some of the chemical which meant local residents were able to return to their homes on February 8. However, concerns about toxic fumes and pollution of local water and soil continued after locals complained of headaches and irritated eyes. There were also reports of local wildlife dying, including fish and birds.

A town meeting was called on February 15 as hundreds of locals looked to ask questions about the health risks the derailment had caused. East Palestine’s Mayor Trent Conaway told the meeting that he wanted those responsible for the incident to be held to account and that he was working closely with Norfolk Southern, adding “they screwed up our town, they are going to fix it.” However, Norfolk Southern pulled out of the town meeting saying they feared violence.

While officials have said it is safe for locals to return home, many residents are extremely concerned about the potential harm of the spill. State health officials have said that drinking water tests have been conducted and there is no concern about it being contaminated. The officials did say that a plume of pollution is currently travelling down the Ohio River, however residential areas along the river would be able to turn off their drinking water intakes as it floats by.

In a statement on February 15, Norfolk Southern said it was committed to ensuring the health and safety of the community and to help the community recover and thrive. As of the evening of February 14, Norfolk Southern said it had:

- Completed more than 400 in-home air tests in conjunction with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other governmental agencies. In-home air monitoring has not detected substances related to the incident and does not indicate health risks.

- Implemented an extensive outdoor air monitoring program in the community. Thousands of data points have been collected, which continue to indicate no risk to health from incident-related substances. Air monitoring is also being conducted in the broader region outside of the Village of East Palestine.

- Actively sampling the Village of East Palestine's drinking water supply wells, drinking water system, and private wells in areas potentially impacted by the incident.

- Distributed over $1.5 million in direct financial assistance to more than 1,000 families and a number of businesses to cover costs related to the evacuation. Those include reimbursements and cash advancements for lodging, travel, food, clothes, and other related items.

- Established a $1 million fund available immediately to the community.

After a further review of areas affected by the evacuation orders and at the request of East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway and other public officials, the company also announced that it was expanding the geographic area eligible for reimbursements for costs and inconvenience related to evacuating the region.

In it’s investigation update, the NTSB said its investigators have so far identified and examined the rail car that initiated the derailment. Surveillance video from a residence showed what appears to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment. The wheelset from the suspected railcar has been collected as evidence for metallurgical examination. The suspected overheated wheel bearing has been collected and will be examined by engineers from the NTSB Materials Laboratory in Washington, D.C.

The tank cars are currently being decontaminated. Once the process is complete, NTSB investigators will return to Ohio to complete a thorough examination of the tank cars. The vinyl chloride tank car top fittings, including the relief valves, were removed and secured in a locked intermodal container pending an NTSB examination. Once the fittings are examined by NTSB investigators, they will be shipped to Texas for testing, which will be conducted under the direction of the NTSB.

NTSB has obtained locomotive event recorder data, forward- and inward-facing image recording data and wayside defect detector data. NTSB investigators continue to review documentation, event recorder data and perform interviews.

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