Prove your humanity

By Julie Grant, The Allegheny Front and A Martínez, NPR

Heard on Morning Edition

The National Transportation Safety Board begins a two-day investigative hearing in East Palestine, Ohio today. The hearing will look into the issues that caused that fiery train derailment of 38 rail tank cars there in early February — and the decision a few days later to vent and burn hazardous chemicals from five of those cars, leading to an explosion and fires.

Julie Grant of The Allegheny Front has been covering this tragedy, and attended a meeting held by the NTSB last night at East Palestine High School. She spoke with NPR’s A Martínez, one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First.

A Martínez: So, at last night’s meeting, who was there, and what did people say?

Julie Grant: This was a meeting for the community — I counted about 70 or 80 people in the auditorium seats. NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said at the investigative hearings that their goal will be to figure out what happened and why, so they can issue safety recommendations.

Residents were told they could not testify at the hearings. Homendy said the hearings are meant to get specific questions answered. Since the incident, there have been so many public meetings. People have been frustrated with environmental regulators, local and state leaders. But at this meeting, many seemed genuinely thankful to the NTSB — like Laurie Harmon, who remembered seeing Jennifer Homendy speak shortly after the derailment:

Laurie Harmon [recorded at the June 21 public meeting, speaking to the NTSB]: I didn’t trust, like the media and I or the government. Everything that was being showed on TV, Facebook, whatever. It was not sincere. The day that I watched you on TV, I actually felt like there is, there’s actually an entity, that is with us. With us. Do you understand what I’m saying? Does everybody understand what I’m saying? Finally, I feel like one entity out of all of them. Who is you in? What you said that day touched me very deeply.

A Martínez: What will the NTSB be looking at during the investigative hearings?

Julie Grant: These hearings will build off a preliminary report the agency released in February. That report found that as the train approached East Palestine, the temperature on one wheel bearing got as high as 250 degrees Fahrenheit above the outdoor temperature. The rising temperature had been detected earlier on the route by Norfolk Southern’s hot-bearing detectors. But investigators found that immediate action was not required until the temperature reached 200 degrees.

The hearings this week will look at hotbox systems, train wheel bearings, the preparation of  emergency responders, and the decision to vent and burn chemicals in the tank cars.

Among those testifying will be affected federal agencies, unions, Norfolk Southern and two other companies involved in the incident.

A Martínez: So, coming back to the people of East Palestine, what can the NTSB do for them?

Julie Grant: That was the biggest question for many people. Someone asked if the hearings would be an exercise in futility. Homendy said the agency will issue safety recommendations and then it would be up to the Department of Transportation to make new rules, and especially Congress to mandate changes in railroad safety standards.

That’s Julie Grant of the Allegheny Front. Julie, thank you for your report.

You’re welcome.