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Norfolk Southern botched decision to blow open vinyl chloride cars in East Palestine, NTSB says

A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of the controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains Monday, Feb. 6, 2023.
Gene J. Puskar
The Associated Press
A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of the controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains Monday, Feb. 6, 2023.

Norfolk Southern and its contractors botched the decision to blow open five tank cars and burn the vinyl chloride inside after last year’s disastrous derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and trackside detectors that might have prevented the crash failed to accurately detect the temperature of a burning wheel bearing 20 miles (32.19 kilometers) beforehand, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Area residents, rail industry representatives and local and state officials packed East Palestine High School’s auditorium Tuesday to hear the NTSB’s investigation findings and recommendations to prevent similar disasters.

Dozens of freight cars derailed Feb. 3, 2023, on the outskirts of East Palestine near the Pennsylvania border, including 11 carrying hazardous materials. Some residents were evacuated that night, but days later more had to leave their homes amid fears of an imminent explosion. Despite potential health effects, officials intentionally released and burned toxic vinyl chloride from five railcars three days after the crash, sending flames and smoke into the air.

“On behalf of the entire agency I want to recognize the significant impact this derailment has had,” NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said at the beginning of the hearing. She added that while some have tried to minimize the wide-reaching effects of the crash because there were no deaths, “the absence of fatality or injury doesn’t mean the presence of safety.”

The NTSB had said early on that an overheated bearing on one of the railcars that was not caught in time by trackside sensors had likely caused the crash. Investigative hearings since then highlighted other possible contributors including widespread rail job cuts and rushed inspections and also delved into why officials chose to deliberately vent and burn the vinyl chloride.

After confirming on Tuesday the trackside detector failure, NTSB investigators said that Norfolk Southern and its contractors compromised the integrity of the vent and burn decision by withholding accurate information from OxyVinyls, the company that made the vinyl chloride, including evidence that the tank cars were cooling after the crash.

“Norfolk Southern and its contractors continued to assert the necessity of a vent and burn, even though available evidence should have led them to re-evaluate their initial conclusion,” investigator Paul Stancil said.

The railroad defended the decision again Tuesday and said it was based on more than just temperature readings. Officials also had concerns about the way the pressure relief devices malfunctioned on the tank cars. It added that nothing kept OxyVinyls from joining the discussion in the command center and sharing its opinion about the tank cars.

OxyVinyls experts testified at earlier NTSB hearings they were certain a feared chemical reaction that could have caused those tank cars to explode wasn’t happening. OxyVinyls didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

East Palestine resident Jami Wallace said it was striking to hear investigators say officially that the vent and burn wasn’t necessary.

“To hear that they purposely and premeditated the poisoning of thousands of people, of my daughter, my husband, my mom, my dad, my nieces, my nephews, everyone I ever knew or loved,” Wallace said. “How are they allowed to do that and get away with it?”

Ohio’s governor, first responders and the hazardous materials experts who made that decision have said the information they had made them believe an explosion was likely imminent, making the burn the best option despite the risks of unleashing cancer-causing dioxins in the area.

The NTSB's investigation also examined the emergency response to the derailment. It found Ohio's volunteer firefighter requirements do not include training in hazardous environments. Staff expressed concern that volunteer firefighters, like those in East Palestine, are responding to the same accidents as professional firefighters without the same training. Ultimately, the board found that the requirements for volunteer firefighters are insufficient to support a safe response to a derailment, recommending additional training for volunteer firefighters.

Another difficulty first responders faced in responding to the derailment was a slow response time from Norfolk Southern in providing the derailed train's contents or a list of what each car was carrying. The NTSB ultimately recommended Norfolk Southern amend its policies to ensure information about train contents is immediately communicated to emergency responders.

Additionally, the board is recommending the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration require placards on rail cars be durable enough to survive fires and accidents while remaining legible. During the derailment, the placards indicating hazardous materials were destroyed, making them useless for first responders.

NTSB staff recommended Tuesday that new guidance be developed for deciding when first responders use the vent and burn tactic and that federal standards should be developed for trackside detectors. The board's investigation found that the hot bearing detector in Salem that caused an initial alert be sent to the wayside desk in Atlanta did not measure the correct temperature of the bearing on the train, meaning the crew did not have enough time to stop the train before it derailed. They also recommended that the Federal Railroad Administration establish rules governing trackside detectors and railroad responses to bearing failure alarms.

The board also criticized the freight rail industry's continued use of DOT-111 tank cars, which the NTSB has been recommending be phased out since the 1990s due to safety concerns. In East Palestine, DOT-111 cars were carrying the chemical the NTSB believes started the fire that led to the vent and burn.

“DOT-111 tank cars are susceptible to breaching damage," Stancil explained, "because the design does not topically include safety systems that have become standard for more robust specification tank cars, such as the DOT-117.”

The NTSB recommends the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration seek legislative power to phase out DOT-111 tank cars and to establish a replacement program for tank cars not meeting current standards.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.