NTSB board releases initial report on East Palestine derailment
The National Transportation Security Board (NTSB) on Thursday issued its preliminary report on the derailment of a train carrying hazardous chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, earlier this month, tentatively corroborating reports that a wheel bearing severely overheated ahead of the accident.
In its preliminary report, NTSB said investigators have examined the first car to derail, the 23rd overall, as well as local surveillance cameras and signal data. A nearby residence’s surveillance footage seemingly shows a wheel bearing in late-stage overheat failure immediately ahead of the accident, according to the preliminary report.
At the time of the accident, the report states, the train had passed through several hot bearing detectors (HBDs), which repeatedly tested as hotter than average and, by the third HBD, was 253 degrees above average, which meets Norfolk Southern’s criteria for “critical.” The train applied brakes at that point, but was unable to stop, according to the preliminary report.
At an NTSB press conference Wednesday, Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy confirmed the initial fire was started by a combination of an overheated axle and a car containing plastic pellets.
Homendy said there was no indication the train’s crew did anything wrong.
The report comes the day after Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited the town amid criticism of his handling of the disaster, on the heels of a visit by former President Donald Trump. The week before, EPA Administrator Michael Regan became the first administration official to visit the town.
Advocates of stricter rail safety regulations have specifically highlighted the Trump administration’s delay of a 2015 rule that would have required trains to be equipped more modern pneumatic brakes. While the Transportation Department has said the rule would not have prevented the East Palestine disaster, Buttigieg and President Biden have both increasingly pointed to Republican- and industry-backed deregulation as a root cause for the derailment.
The train, operated by Norfolk Southern Railway, derailed on Feb. 3. The 38 derailed cars included several cars containing vinyl chloride, a hazardous substance used in the production of plastics. Federal and state officials have both said drinking water in the area is safe, but both Gov. Mike DeWine (R) and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan have recommended residents drink bottled water.
NTSB investigators have taken possession of the wheel bearing in question as well as the affected wheel mechanism, according to the preliminary report. The investigation is ongoing and will further examine the design of the vinyl chloride tank cars and the derailment damage. It will also analyze the immediate response, in which first responders burned the five vinyl chloride tank cars to prevent a possible explosion.
In the report, NTSB emphasizes that potential environmental hazards are the purview of the EPA, which announced earlier this week that it would take over the cleanup effort and require Norfolk Southern to assume responsibility.
Homendy predicted the full investigation would take between 12 and 18 months, but added “If we see a safety issue that we need addressed immediately, something systemic, we will not hesitate to issue an urgent safety recommendation.”
“This is a community that has been devastated,” she said. “They deserve to know what happened [and] how to prevent it from happening again.”
— Updated at 1:53 p.m.
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