Prove your humanity

The National Transportation Safety Board met in East Palestine, Ohio, Tuesday to vote on the findings of its investigation into a train derailment here that released toxic chemicals into the community. 

On February 3, 2023, a Friday evening, 38 train cars derailed just outside of town, near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. Eleven of the cars were carrying hazardous materials. There were fires, and 2,000 people were evacuated.

Over that weekend, Norfolk Southern became concerned that one of five cars carrying vinyl chloride, a toxic, carcinogenic chemical, could explode. So, Ohio’s Governor and the East Palestine Fire Chief approved the rail company’s plan to vent the chemical from the cars and burn it. 

That operation led to an explosion and a huge chemical plume that spread contamination throughout the community.

The NTSB issued a preliminary report about the incident in February 2023 and held investigative hearings in June 2023. 

LISTEN to Julie Grant discuss the NTSB report with The Allegheny Front’s Julie Grant

1 – An overheated wheel bearing caused the derailment

The Norfolk Southern train was heading east from Illinois to Pennsylvania. The NTSB found that 30 miles before it derailed, hot bearing detectors along the tracks recorded that one of the wheel bearings was 38 degrees Fahrenheit above ambient temperature. Ten miles later, the bearing was detected at 103 degrees. It was 20 miles before the next detector. At that point, the train was rolling through East Palestine, and the wheel bearing was 253 degrees F above ambient air. The overheated bearing caused the axle to separate, causing the railcar’s lead truck to derail. 

2 – NTSB wants a maximum distance set for spacing of hot bearing detectors 

To identify safety issues and avoid derailments, NTSB investigators mentioned studies showing that the ideal spacing for hot bearing detectors along the tracks is 15 miles between boxes.

In March 2023, the Association of American Railroads announced that the industry’s new standard would be an average hot box spacing of 15 miles. 

But this did not please NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy. “I have a real concern about using averages,” she said at Tuesday’s meeting. 

Homendy noted that an average means some can still be spaced farther apart — the nearest detector as the train approached East Palestine was 20 miles away.

“Would that [an average detector spacing of 15 miles] have done anything for this one to prevent it? Not a single thing. They’re adopting the exact same thing that occurred here,” she said.

The NTSB recommends that the Federal Railroad Administration develop and establish maximum distances between wayside detectors.

Map of rail line idenifying hot box detectors along the eastbound rail line leading to East Palestine, Ohio

Screenshot from the NTSB meeting on June 25, 2024.

 3 – Certain tank car models are known dangers

After the derailment, the NTSB found that the fire likely began with hazardous materials, probably butyl acrylates,  which were among the chemicals released from breached DOT-111 tank cars.  

While the five tank cars that contained vinyl chloride that became the center of the vent and burn decision were DOT-105 tank cars (not DOT-111s),  that DOT-111 butyl acrylate release is what started the fires, according to the NTSB.

“If DOT-111 tank cars transporting combustible and flammable liquids had not sustained mechanical breaches during the derailment, the DOT-105 tank cars transporting vinyl chloride monomer likely would not have been exposed to the fire conditions that led to concerns about polymerization and ultimately the vent and burn actions that released additional lading from those five DOT-105 tank cars,” states the NTSB in its findings.

Investigators noted that DOT-111 tank cars have been a known safety concern for over 30 years. According to the NTSB, when DOT-111 cars were in accidents, 54 percent of them released their contents. 

While no one was killed in the East Palestine derailment, DOT-111 cars have been involved in deaths, like a 2013 train disaster in Lac-Mégantic Quebec where 47 people were killed, and half the downtown was destroyed. 

The NTSB found that 25,300 of these tank cars are still in use in the U.S. 

If DOT-111 cars continue to carry hazardous materials, we will see more derailments and the release of hazardous materials in communities,” said Board member Michael Graham at the meeting.

Under the 2015 FAST Act, DOT-111 tank cars will be phased out of use by May 1, 2029. The NTSB is recommending a faster phase-out of these, as well as AAR-211 cars, which are used to transport lower-level hazardous materials. 

The NTSB is also recommending that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration “obtain the necessary legislative authority and accelerate the deadline for removing specification DOT-111 tank cars from flammable liquids service,” the NTSB summary report states.

A black colored derailed train tank car with fire underneath

Vinyl chloride tank cars surrounded by fire. Photo from a screenshot of the NTSB meeting on June 25, 2024.

4 – The initial emergency response lacked information and communication 

Within minutes of the train derailing at about 8:54 p.m., the East Palestine Fire Department (EPFD) was called to the scene and established a command post 400 feet from the derailment site, inside what is known as the “hot zone.” 

The EPFD started fighting the fire with large streams of water. “Amount of fire like that, there’s not enough water available,” NTSB investigator Troy Lloyd told the Board, relaying what the assistant EP Fire Chief had reported. “The fire just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. So it was not effective.” 

It also only took minutes for East Palestine emergency dispatchers to call Norfolk Southern’s dispatch center, trying to find out what was on board those rail cars, what is called the train “consist.” 

Lloyd said getting that information is “a game changer” in determining what is happening during a hazardous materials emergency.

But it took an hour for the rail company to provide the information, and more time before the EP Fire Chief found out that vinyl chloride was on board.

It was at least 11 p.m. before the command post was moved farther away, out of the “hot zone,” and residents within a one-mile radius were evacuated.   

The delayed transmittal of the train consist…resulted in greater exposure of emergency responders and to the public to post-derailment hazards,” Lloyd said.

It’s unacceptable,” he told Board members. “A train consist needs to be in the hands of the first responders immediately.” 

The NTSB is recommending that Norfolk Southern and the Federal Railroad Administration do more to provide real-time, accurate information about the hazardous materials involved in an emergency.

In addition, the agency found fault with Ohio’s laws regarding volunteer firefighter training, which investigators said were “not sufficient to support a safe emergency response to the derailment.” It noted that Pennsylvania has more robust firefighter training.

A plume of black smoke behind a small house in a rural setting.

The vent and burn of vinyl chloride, from a screenshot from the NTSB meeting on June 25, 2024.

5 – The vent and burn operation was not necessary 

Two days after the derailment, Norfolk Southern’s contractor, Drew McCarty, found the temperature increasing in the vinyl chloride tank cars, indicating, he thought, that a chemical process called polymerization was happening inside and that the car could explode. 

Norfolk Southern told decision-makers that a vent and burn was the only option to prevent the car from blowing up and gave the East Palestine Fire Chief and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine only 13 minutes to decide whether or not to approve the operation. Their approval led to a wider evacuation of residents

“Norfolk Southern Railway and its contractors compromised the integrity of the vent and burn decision by creating unwarranted urgency,” the NTSB said in its investigation findings.

In the hours after the vent and burn decision, but before the operation was initiated, Oxy Vinyls, the owner of the vinyl chloride in the cars, found that the temperature inside that rail car had actually decreased and stabilized. Oxy Vinyls advised Norfolk Southern that the vent and burn was not necessary. However, the rail company did not provide that information to the fire chief, who was the incident commander. 

Two graphs next to each other showing temperatures trending downward, and stabilizing, before the vent and burn operation in East Palestine

Temperature of the vinyl chloride tank car. Screenshot from the NTSB meeting on June 25, 2024.

“No explanation or argument for Norfolk Southern Railway and its contractors’ continued advocacy for the vent and burn procedure justifies failing to communicate relevant expertise and dissenting opinions to the incident commander,” according to the NTSB findings.

During the meeting, NTSB investigator Paul Stancil told the board that scientific information and evidence suggest that the vinyl chloride did not undergo polymerization, “and the vent and burn action, therefore, would not have been necessary.”

The NTSB findings call for federal guidance about “what products and circumstances are candidates for the vent and burn method.”

Homendy added that Norfolk Southern told the agency it did not want this narrative publicized and did not cooperate with the investigation. 

“Numerous times, Norfolk Southern delayed or failed to provide critical investigative information to our team,” she said. “Twice at the request of staff, I called Norfolk Southern and stated I would issue subpoenas if it wasn’t immediately provided to our team.”

6 – BONUS: A grateful community

At a community meeting held by the NTSB on Monday night in East Palestine, people cheered the agency. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” said one woman who stood up during the meeting. 

“It’s more important than anybody knows that you’ve involved the community, that you came to us. Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” said community activist Jamie Wallace, whose family was displaced by the derailment.

Still, Wallace and others lament that the NTSB’s findings are not admissible evidence in court cases because they don’t feel they are getting enough compensation for their losses from the community class action lawsuit against Norfolk Southern. 

Homendy reminded residents that the agency can not make policy changes but told them it will push for its safety recommendations for as long as it takes. “We’re not going anywhere,” Homendy said.