Prove your humanity

This story comes from IdeaStream Public Media.

The first panel of the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigative hearings on February’s train derailment in East Palestine examined hazard communications, emergency responder preparedness and the decision to vent and burn vinyl chloride in five tanker cars.

LISTEN to The Allegheny Front’s Julie Grant and Reid Frazier discuss the hearing

“Communication is always an issue for us,” East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick said. “Our dispatch center for example has one dispatcher on at any given time; that’s it.”

Questioning also surrounded the use of apps like AskRail, which provide first responders information on what freight rail trains are carrying.”My understanding is a lot of first responders do not have the AskRail app, which I’m sure that this is going to change that,” Marc Dougherty with the NTSB said.

The AskRail app is also one way first responders can access a train’s consist, a document that has information on what a train is carrying, the number of cars and the weight and length of a train. At the time of the train derailment, East Palestine Fire Department did not have access to the AskRail app.

“We have access to the AskRail app now to get the consist quicker,” Drabick said, adding that he only received access after the derailment.

 National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy

National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homeny on June 22, 2023, at the board’s first investigative hearing into the East Palestine train derailment. Matthew Chasney / Ideastream Public Media

Norfolk Southern criticized for slow communication

The amount of time it took Norfolk Southern to send the consist to first responders was heavily criticized by NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy.

“How is it that Norfolk Southern could provide the contractors responsible for cleanup with the information within 12 minutes of the derailment and took an hour to several hours before providing it to emergency responders?” Homendy asked.

First responders also brought up the need for more federal and state funding for training. East Palestine Fire Department is entirely volunteer, aside from Drabick. Being a volunteer fire department makes training more difficult, Drabick said.

“The majority of the fire departments in this county operate as volunteer fire departments: men and women working full-time jobs elsewhere, sacrificing their time coming in the evenings or the days they are off,” Drabick said.

Many politicians and advocates have spoken in favor of freight rail companies notifying communities in advance of hazardous materials being transported through them. Drabick said he’s unsure if this would actually be helpful or just an overwhelming amount of information.

“For our department for example, would it be beneficial? Potentially but you also have to realize we have a train coming through our town on an average of nine minutes every day,” Drabick explained.

The decision to burn

The second half of the hearing focused on the decision to vent and burn the vinyl chloride in five tanker cars. The hearing revealed that not all information about the vent and burn was relayed to the incident commander.

Drabick, who was acting incident commander, testified the decision at the time of the derailment was a consensus.

“None of the unified command members in that meeting or any of the agencies represented in that meeting stated any objection to that or had any other information leaning towards it was not going through that process,” Drabick said.

 The National Transportation Safety Board members sit behind a table.

The National Safety Transportation Board members on June 22, 2023, at the first investigative hearing on the East Palestine train derailment. Photo: Matthew Chasney / Ideastream Public Media

Drabick ultimately gave the final OK to move forward with the vent and burn.

“The final yes was given by me based on the consensus of everybody in the unified command that there was no other option,” Drabick said. “No objections were given to that.”

Officials from Norfolk Southern and its contractor maintained that the decision to vent and burn the vinyl chloride was made out of fear of polymerization, or a molecular chemical reaction that could have resulted in a catastrophic explosion. Officials have said that the decision needed to be made quickly, before the tanker cars reached a critical temperature of 185 degrees Fahrenheit.

“We were told we had 13 minutes to make the decision and that had to do with convergence, with the weather and transitioning from day to night,” Drabick explained.

The 185 degrees Fahrenheit figure is not rooted in science, William Carroll, an adjunct professor of chemistry at Indiana University testified.

“I have no idea what a critical temperature of 185 degrees means,” Carroll said. “Vinyl chloride does not polymerize only on the action of heat. It does not spontaneously polymerize.”

Not all parties involved agreed that the tanker cars were polymerizing.

“We didn’t believe polymerization was going on,” Paul Thomas with OxyVinyls, the company that owned the vinyl chloride said, “but more importantly, I think what we told them was how they could know for sure.”

 A graph shows the temperature of one of the tanker cars over time.

The National Transportation Safety Board showed this graph during an investigative hearing on June 22, 2023, which shows the temperature of one of the tanker cars over time. Abigail Bottar / Ideastream Public Media

Polymerization would have caused the tanker cars to rise in temperature, but data from before the vent and burn occurred show temperatures dropping. However, Norfolk Southern officials and its contractor say the temperatures were inaccurate since it was not safe for responders to get close enough to cars to get accurate readings.

“It’s conclusive to all of us that polymerization was not going on in that car,” Thomas said, “and the location where they were taking the temperature on the skin is valid enough to draw that conclusion.”

The hearing revealed that Drabick, who was in charge of making the final decision on venting and burning, was not made aware of OxyVinyls’ assessment.

“I believe any information you have is power,” Drabick said, “and the more information you have, the better prepared you are to make decisions.” He added that he regrets not knowing this information at that time.

Officials from Norfolk Southern and its contractor maintain that the vent and burn was the only option due to the severity of damage to the tanker cars and that polymerization was not the only reason behind this decision. Several officials, including Drew McCarty with Specialized Professional Services Inc., a contractor for Norfolk Southern, said they saw physical characteristics of polymerization when the explosion from the vent and burn occurred.

“It was not a clear liquid. It was more of a whiteish color, so that was our speculation at the time,” McCarty said. “And that’s what we felt was happening the whole weekend.”

It is unlikely to see polymerization during a vent and burn, Carroll said.

The NTSB hearings continue through Friday with panels on wheel bearings and rail tank car safety.