Decisions made after fiery Ohio train derailment will be examined at NTSB hearing
Global OHS News Ohio rail safety
By Josh Funk
Some of the key decisions made in the aftermath of February’s fiery derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in eastern Ohio will be examined at a hearing Thursday.
The National Transportation Safety Board is holding a rare field hearing in East Palestine, Ohio, over the next two days. Thursday’s hearing will focus on the emergency response to the derailment and the crucial decision officials made days later to release the toxic vinyl chloride in five tank cars and burn it to keep those cars from exploding.
That decision sent a towering plume of black smoke over the town near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border and prompted the evacuation of about half of East Palestine’s 5,000 residents. Officials have defended that decision as the best option when faced with the prospect of an explosion that would have sent shrapnel into the town.
But residents have been left with many questions about possible lingering health effects even though state and federal officials say tests have shown the air and water in town remains safe.
The railroad has been working ever since the Feb. 3 derailment to dig up and remove contaminated soil and water from the derailment site. The Environmental Protection Agency and Ohio officials have been overseeing the cleanup.
Norfolk Southern has committed more than $62 million to helping the town recover. The railroad has said it expects the derailment to cost it nearly $400 million, although insurance will cover some of that and any other companies that are found responsible may have to contribute. But the total cost will likely increase over time as various lawsuits filed by states, the federal government and residents work their way through the courts.
The NTSB said in its preliminary report that an overheating bearing on one of the railcars likely caused the derailment, but it may take more than a year before the agency publishes its final report. The bearing started heating up miles before the derailment, according to sensors Norfolk Southern has along the tracks, but it didn’t get hot enough to trigger an alarm until just before the crash. The crew had little time to react.
The derailment, and several others since February, generated nationwide concern about railroad safety and prompted members of Congress to propose a package of reforms. Norfolk Southern’s CEO Alan Shaw was grilled at two different Senate hearings where he apologized for the derailment and promised to make things right in East Palestine.
All the Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability sent Shaw a letter that was released Thursday morning expressing frustration that his railroad has refused to produce documents they asked for related to the way it uses trackside detectors and some of the operating decisions Norfolk Southern has made in recent years as it slashed its workforce to reduce costs.
The railroad has followed the industry practice to rely more on running fewer, longer trains so it doesn’t need as many crews and locomotives. Rail unions have raised concerns about whether all the cuts have made railroads riskier, while executives have defended their approach.
Norfolk Southern’s lawyers told the congressional committee that the railroad couldn’t release the internal documents because of the ongoing NTSB investigation. Committee Democrats have rejected that explanation and said nothing about the NTSB probe should keep the committee from looking into the matter and the railroad knows that. So far, the railroad has provided only two small batches of documents that appear to be publicly available.
“We are profoundly troubled by Norfolk Southern’s illegitimate efforts to mislead Committee Democrats and use NTSB’s investigation as a shield to impede Congressional oversight,” the 21 Democrats wrote in their letter.