On February 3rd, a train carrying 20 cars with poisonous, flammable chemicals derailed in East Palestine, OH. In this episode, we’re going to get some answers. Using testimony from four Congressional hearings, community meeting footage, National Transportation Safety Board preliminary reports, and lots of articles from local and mainstream press, you will learn what Congress is being told as they write the Rail Safety Act, which both parts of Congress are working on in response to the East Palestine train derailment.
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Recommended Congressional Dish Episodes
East Palestine Derailment Overview
“It’s been more than a month since a freight train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in Ohio. Here’s what’s happened since.” Alisha Ebrahimji and Holly Yan. Mar 23, 2023. CNN.
“Residents can return home after crews burned chemicals in derailed tanker cars.” Associated Press. Feb 8, 2023. NPR.
“WATCH: Smoke billows over East Palestine after controlled burn at train derailment site.” Feb 8, 2023. Cleveland 19 News.
Vinyl Chloride and Dioxins
“East Palestine Train Derailment: What is vinyl chloride and what happens when it burns?” Associated Press. Feb 8, 2023. CBS News Pittsburgh.
“Dioxins and their effects on human health.” Oct 4, 2016. World Health Organization.
“Medical Management Guidelines for Vinyl Chloride.” Last reviewed Oct 21, 2014. Centers for Disease Control Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
National Transportation Safety Board Findings
“Norfolk Southern Railway Train Derailment with Subsequent Hazardous Material Release and Fires: Investigation Details.” Last updated Mar 21, 2023. National Transportation Safety Board.
“What appears to be an overheated wheel bearing seen moments before East Palestine train derailment, NTSB says.” Ian Cross. Feb 14, 2023. ABC News 5 Cleveland.
“Vent and Burn” Decision
“Ex-EPA Administrator Doubts Agency’s East Palestine Claims: ‘Hard to Believe They Were Silent’ Before Norfolk Southern Detonated Toxic Vinyl Chloride Cars.” Jordan Chariton. May 25, 2023. Status Coup News.
“East Palestine emails reveal insight into decision to vent and burn toxic rail cars.” Tara Morgan. May 15, 2023. ABC News 5 Cleveland.
“EXCLUSIVE: ‘I truly feel defeated and useless.’ Emails and texts reveal anguish of East Palestine fire chief over lack of adequate health advice after he was told to treat chemical disaster ‘like a normal house fire.'” Daniel Bates. May 15, 2023. The Daily Mail.
“East Palestine Bombshell: EPA Official Admits It May Be Missing Toxic Chemicals in Air Testing, Admits Some of Its Decision Making Has Been to Prevent Lawsuits.” Louis DeAngelis. Mar 29, 2023. Status Coup News.
East Palestine Resident Health Problems
“No one has accepted real responsibility for the East Palestine disaster.” Zsuzsa Gyenes. May 16, 2023. The Guardian.
“East Palestine survey reveals residents experienced headaches and anxiety after train derailment.” Nicki Brown, Artemis Moshtaghian and Travis Caldwell. Mar 4, 2023. CNN.
“People in East Palestine showing breakdown product of vinyl chloride in urine tests.” Tara Morgan. Apr 28, 2023. ABC News 5 Cleveland.
“Making it Right.” Norfolk Southern.
“Norfolk Southern unveils compensation plans for homeowners near derailment site.” Andrea Cambron, Jason Carroll and Chris Isidore. May 11, 2023. CNN Business.
“’32 Nasty:’ Rail Workers Say They Knew the Train That Derailed in East Palestine Was Dangerous.” Aaron Gordon. Feb 15, 2023. Vice.
“Wall Street says Norfolk Southern profits won’t suffer from derailment.” Rachel Premack. Feb 14, 2023. Freight Waves.
“US rail industry defends safety record amid staffing cuts.” Josh Funk. May 16, 2021. AP News.
Lobbying Against Regulations
“Rail Companies Blocked Safety Rules Before Ohio Derailment.” David Sirota et al. Feb 8, 2023. The Lever.
ECP Brake Deregulation
“USDOT repeals ECP brake rule.” William C. Vantuono. Dec 5, 2017. Railway Age.
Railway Safety Act
“Railway Safety Act passes committee, moves to Senate floor for full vote.” Abigail Bottar. May 10, 2023. Ideastream Public Media.
“Railroads are slashing workers, cheered on by Wall Street to stay profitable amid Trump’s trade war.” Heather Long. Jan 3, 2020. The Washington Post.
“The True Dangers of Long Trains.” Dan Schwartz and Topher Sanders. Apr 3, 2023. Propublica.
May 10, 2023
Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation
36:30 Sen. JD Vance (R-OH): This bill has changed a lot from what I introduced just a few short months ago. We’ve made a number of concessions to industry; a number of concessions to the rail industry, a number of concessions to various interest groups, which is why we have so much bipartisan support in this body but also why we have a lot of support from industry.
March 28, 2023
Status Coup News
March 28, 2023
House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment, Manufacturing, & Critical Materials
- Debra Shore, Regional Administrator, U.S Environmental Protection Agency, Region 5
- Wesley Vins, Health Commissioner, Columbiana County General Health District
- Anne M. Vogel, Director, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency
30:40 Debra Shore: Since the derailment, EPA has been leading robust, multi-layered air quality testing, using state of the art technology in and around East Palestine, and that extensive monitoring has continued daily at 23 stations throughout the community. Since the fire was extinguished on February 8, EPA monitors have not detected any volatile organic compounds above established levels of health concerns. EPA has also been assisting with indoor air screenings in homes through a voluntary program to keep residents informed. As of March 21, more than 600 homes have been screened, and no sustained or elevated detections of chemicals have been identified.
33:00 Debra Shore: Here’s how EPA is holding Norfolk Southern accountable. On February 21, EPA issued a Unilateral Administrative Order to Norfolk Southern, including a number of directives to identify and clean up contaminated soil and water resources, to attend and participate in public meetings at EPA’s request, and to post information online, and ordering the company to pay EPA’s costs for work performed under the order. All Norfolk Southern work plans must be reviewed and approved by EPA. It must outline all steps necessary to address the environmental damage caused by the derailment. If the company fails to complete any of the EPAs ordered actions, the agency will immediately step in, conduct the necessary work, and then seek punitive damages at up to three times the cost.
46:30 Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH): In one case, trucks were actually turned around at the gate of a proper, certified disposal facility and sent back to East Palestine to sit practically in my constituents backyard. Why did the EPA believe that it needed to send those letters? Debra Shore: Chairman Johnson, the instance you cite occurred before EPA assumed responsibility under the Unilateral Administrative Order for the cleanup. We don’t know who told those trucks to turn around, whether it was the disposal facility itself or someone else.
48:50 Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH): Why were they turned around? Debra Shore: This occurred during the transition period between Ohio EPA and US EPA assuming the lead for the emergency response. As such, under the Unilateral Administrative Order, all disposal facilities are required to be on the CERCLA (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act) approved off-site disposal list. So, we needed a few days to review what had occurred and ensure that those facilities that Norfolk Southern had contracts with were on that approved list. Once we determined which ones were on the approved list, it’s up to Norfolk Southern to ship waste off the site.
1:03:30 Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO): Is the EPA intending to use the Unilateral Administrative Order to ensure that Norfolk Southern establishes a health and environmental screening program beyond this initial cleanup period? Debra Shore: Right now, the focus of the Unilateral Order and our work with Norfolk Southern is to make sure the site is cleaned up. I think the responsibility for that longer term health effort, I support what Dr. Vins recommended, and that may have to be negotiat[ed] with Norfolk Southern going forward. Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO): Obviously, that hasn’t started yet. Debra Shore: Not to my knowledge.
1:09:05 Rep. Buddy Carter (R-GA): What will take place in the remediation phase, what happens then? Debra Shore: Then there’ll be restoration of stream banks and the places where the soil was removed from along the railroad sites and I think a larger vision for the community that they’re already beginning to work on, such as parks and streetscapes. Rep. Buddy Carter (R-GA): Right. Any idea of what kind of timeframe we’re talking about here? I mean, are we talking like in my district, decades? Debra Shore: No. We believe the core of the removal of the contaminated site and the restoration of the tracks will be several months.
1:11:35 Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ): When did clean up responsibility shift from EPA to Norfolk Southern, and what protections were put in place to ensure the health and safety of the community during that shift? Debra Shore: Thank you, Congressman Pallone. The transition from the State agency, which has the delegated authority in every state, has an emergency response capability, and so Ohio was on the ground working with the local firemen and other agencies as EPA arrived shortly after the derailment. It is typical in these kinds of emergency responses for the state agency to take the lead in the early days and Norfolk Southern was complying with the directives from the state. They continued to comply, but we’ve found over time that it’s important to have all the authority to hold the principal responsible party in this case Norfolk Southern accountable, which is why on February 21, several weeks after the derailment, EPA issued its Unilateral Administrative Order.
1:19:55 Debra Shore: In the subsequent soil sampling that’s been conducted, we looked at the information about the direction of the plume from the vent and burn event and focused that primarily where there might have been aerial deposition of soot or particulate matter, and that those soil samples have been collected in Pennsylvania. Rep. John Joyce (R-PA): And today, what soil, air, and water tests are continuing to occur in Pennsylvania? Debra Shore: Additional soil samples will be collected in collaboration, principally, with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, the local Farm Bureau, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
1:28:36 Anne M. Vogel: The reason that we have been able to say that the municipal drinking water is safe is based on an Ohio EPA map that pre-exists the derailment. This is the source water protection map. So the municipal wellfield is right here, if folks can see that, that big well in the blue. So the derailment happened way over here, a mile and a half away from the wellfield. And we know how the water flows, down this way, down this way, down the creeks. So the derailment would not have affected the municipal water source and we knew that very quickly after the derailment.
1:49:05 Debra Shore: Norfolk Southern has encountered some difficulties in finding and establishing contracts with sites to accept both liquid and solid waste. And I think we could accelerate the cleanup if they were able to fulfill that obligation more expeditiously.
1:51:20 Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-CA): What are some of the long term health concerns that residents and your providers have? Wesley Vins: We’ve heard a whole wide range of concerns long term. Certainly, cancer is first and foremost, because of much of the information that the residents see online and here, as well as reproductive concerns, growth concerns, hormonal concerns Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-CA): Do you think there’s a potential with the carcinogens or any of the toxins that it could lead to ailments for five years from now? Wesley Vins: Yeah, I understand your question. So the some of the constituents that we have related to this response, obviously are carcinogenic, however, we’re seeing low levels, is really the initial response. So I think the long question is, we don’t know. Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-CA): We don’t know.
2:04:50 Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-CA): Administrator Shore, one concern my office has heard is that relocation costs are not being covered by Norfolk Southern for everyone in East Palestine. How is it determined whether a resident is eligible to have their relocation costs paid for? Debra Shore: I’m sorry to hear that. My understanding was that Norfolk Southern was covering temporary relocation costs for any resident who sought that, and I would direct you to Norfolk Southern to ask why they are being turned down. Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-CA): Can the EPA require that Norfolk Southern cover relocation costs for anyone in East Palestine? Debra Shore: I’ll find out.
2:11:45 Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks (R-IA): I guess my concern is, if the EPA is website says that the sampling data hasn’t been quality assured, how did the EPA make the determination that the air is safe to breathe when it appears that the sampling data has not been quality assured? Debra Shore: Congresswoman, I’m going to ask our staff to get back to you with an answer for that.
March 22, 2023
Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation
- U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown
- U.S. Senator J.D. Vance
- Mike DeWine, Governor of Ohio
- Misti Allison, Resident of East Palestine
- Jennifer Homendy, Chair, National Transportation Safety Board
- David Comstock, Chief, Ohio Western Reserve Joint Fire District
- Clyde Whitaker, Legislative Director, Ohio State SMART-TD
- Alan Shaw, CEO, Norfolk Southern
- Ian Jefferies, CEO, Association of American Railroads
1:35:00 Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX): Is there any relief being offered now to say, if you make the decision to move your home and move your family somewhere else, there is an avenue for you to sell your home and get a fair market price for it? Misti Allison: The short answer is, as of today, no. There is not a clear cut explanation or parameters of how you would do that. We’ve heard time and time again from Norfolk Southern that they’re going to make it right and that they’re looking into some long term health care monitoring and assistance and home value protection, but details of that plan have not been disclosed to residents as of today.
1:42:05 Jennifer Homendy: This derailment, as all accidents we investigate, was 100% preventable.
1:43:20 Jennifer Homendy: First, the definition of high hazard flammable train should be expanded to a broader array of hazmats and the definition’s threshold of 20 loaded tank cars in a continuous block or 35 tank cars dispersed throughout a train should be eliminated. Second, DOT 111 should be phased out of all hazmat service. They’re not as protected as DOT 117 tank cars. Third, people deserve to know what chemicals are moving through their communities and how to stay safe in an emergency. That includes responders who risk their lives for each of us every single day. They deserve to be prepared. That means access to real time information, obtaining the right training and gear, and having the right communications and planning tools. Fourth, light cockpit voice recorders in the aviation, audio and video recorders in the locomotive cab are essential for helping investigators determine the cause of an accident and make more precise safety recommendations. Recorders also help operators proactively improve their safety policies and practices. In the East Palestine derailment, the locomotive was equipped with an inward facing camera. However, since the locomotive was put immediately back into service following the accident, the data was overwritten. That means the recorder only provided about 15 minutes of data before the derailment, and five minutes after. The FAST Act, following terrible tragedies in Chatsworth and in Philadelphia, required Amtrak and commuter railroads to maintain crash and fire hardened inward and outward facing image recorders in all controlling locomotives that have a minimum of a 12 hour continuous recording capability. This was extremely helpful in our DuPont Washington investigation. Now is the time to expand that requirement to audio, and include the Class One freight railroads in that mandate. In fact, now is the time to address all of the NTSB’s open rail safety recommendations, many of which are on our most wanted list. Fifth and finally, as the committee works on enhancing rail safety, I trust that you’ll consider the resources that we desperately need to carry out our critical safety mission. Investments in the NTSB are investments in safety across all modes of transportation.
1:52:05 Clyde Whitaker: This derailment did not have to happen. And it makes it so much more frustrating for us to know that it was very predictable. And yet our warnings and cries for help over the last seven years have fallen on deaf ears and the outcome was exactly as we feared. Now the result is a town that doesn’t feel safe in their own homes, businesses failing to survive and a railroad that prioritized its own movement of trains, before the people in the community, as well as its workers. It truly is a shame that operational changes in place prior to that incident are still in place today and the possibility for a similar disaster is just as possible. My entire railroad career I’ve listened to the railroads portray a message and image of safety first, but I have never witnessed or experienced that truth, one single day on the property. For years I’ve handled complaint after complaint regarding unsafe practices and unsafe environments, and for almost every single one I’ve been fought every step of the way. The truth is, ask any railroad worker and they will tell you, that their carriers are masters of checking the boxes and saying the right things, without ever doing anything meaningful toward improving safety. They’re only focus is on the operating ratios and bottom lines, which is evidenced by the fact that their bonus structures are set up to reward timely movements of freight rather than reaching destinations safely, as they once were. Actions do speak louder than words. And I assure you that what you have heard, and will hear, from the railroads today are nothing more than words. Their actions are what’s experienced by men and women I represent as well as what the people of East Palestine have been through. This is the reality of what happens when railroads are primarily left to govern and regulate themselves.
1:54:05 Clyde Whitaker: On July 11, 2022, I filed a complaint with the FRA (Freight Railroad Administration) regarding an unsafe practice that was occurring on Norfolk Southern (NS), despite existing operating rules to the contrary. NS was giving instructions to crews to disregard wayside detector failures and to keep the trains moving. This meant the trains were not being inspected as intended, and that the crews were not able to ascertain the integrity of such trains. This practice remained in place even after East Palestine.
1:54:40 Clyde Whitaker: It is a virus that has plagued the industry for some time, with the exception of precision scheduled railroading. Across America, inspections and maintenance is being deferred to expedite the movement of trains. No longer is identifying defects and unsafe conditions the goal of inspections, but rather minimiz[ing] the time it takes to perform them, or the elimination of them all together.
2:17:40 Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX): Why did Norfolk Southern not stop the train then and examine the bearing to make sure that it didn’t melt the axle and that you didn’t have a derailment? If you’d stop then it would have prevented the derailment. So my question is, why did the second hotbox reading not trigger action? Alan Shaw: Senator, my understanding is that that second reading was still below our alarm threshold, which is amongst the lowest in the industry. In response to this, the industry has agreed to work together to share best practices with respect to hotbox detectors, trending technology, and thresholds. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX): So when you and I visited my office yesterday, you said your threshold is now 170 degrees above ambient temperature. As I understand it, at the time of the derailment, your threshold was 200 degrees above ambient temperature.
2:20:15 Clyde Whitaker: Make note that trending defect detector technology from being in the cab of a locomotive, when we pass a defect detector, it trends to an office like Norfolk Southern in Atlanta, Georgia. It doesn’t convey to the railroad crews, which is a problem in this incident as well as many others that still continue to this day. What we need as a train crew — which they say they listen, they haven’t been listening for quite a while — we need to be notified whenever these trending detectors are seeing this car trend hotter. That way we can keep a better eye on it.
2:22:35 Clyde Whitaker: It is feasible. The technology is there. Several days after East Palestine, we almost had a similar incident in the Cleveland area on Norfolk Southern. The defect detector said no defects to the crew. The train dispatcher came on and said, “Hey, we have a report of a trending defect detector on the train. We need you to stop and inspect it.” Immediately after that the chief dispatcher, which is the person that controls the whole railroad, told them to keep going. If it were not for an eastbound train passing them and instructing them, “Hey, your train is on fire, stop your train.” And we set that car out. They had to walking speed this car five miles. So the technology is there. They’re just raising and lowering their thresholds to move freight.
2:25:15 Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA): His testimony is loud and clear: it would have been worse if there was only one person as a crew on that train. Do you disagree with him? Alan Shaw: Senator, I believe that we have operations infrastructure on the ground to respond to derailments. Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA): I think you’re not answering the question, okay? It’s almost like the last hearing all over again. Because I think the evidence is very clear that these trains can be absolutely safer, but that technology is no replacement for human beings. For example, it can’t provide the cognitive functions of a conductor and can’t collect visual cues during an emergency. Two-person crews make our trains safer and I wish that you would commit to that today, because I think it’s pretty obvious that is the correct answer. I just get sick of industry executives talking about supporting the principles of regulation, while they lobby against common sense regulations like this one behind the scenes.
2:38:50 Sen. Peter Welch (D-VT): I understand that the business plan of Norfolk Southern includes a $7.5 billion stock buyback that is ongoing. Do you believe it would be appropriate to suspend that buyback program until all of the assurances that you are making to this committee and also to the people of East Palestine, about “making this right,” that that stock back buyback program should be suspended until you have accomplished what you’ve assured us and what you’ve assured that people of East Palestine that you would do? Alan Shaw: Senator, we think about safety every day. We spend a billion dollars a year in capital on safety. And we have ongoing expenses of about a billion dollars a year in safety and as a result over time, derailments are down, hazardous material releases are down and injuries are down. We can always get better. Sen. Peter Welch (D-VT): Right, so you won’t answer my question about suspending the buyback program. Alan Shaw: Senator, stock buybacks never come at the expense of safety Sen. Peter Welch (D-VT): I take that is that you will continue with your plan on the buyback.
2:51:30 Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV): I know that high hazardous flammable trains have more safety regulations. Why would this not have been characterized as a high hazard flammable train if it had th ese hazardous materials on it as part of the 149 car train? Alan Shaw: Senator, thank you for your question. I’m not familiar with the entire makeup of the train. I know that a highly hazardous train is defined by a certain number of highly hazardous cars in it or a certain number of cars in a block. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV): Miss Homendy, maybe you can help me with that question. Jennifer Homendy: Yes, the definition of a high hazard flammable train involves class three flammable liquids only, 20 car loads in a continuous block, which would be a unit train, or 35 car loads of class three flammable liquids in a mixed freight train. That was not what was on this train. There were some that were class three defined flammable liquids, but this train was not a high hazard flammable train. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV): Right. It wasn’t a high hazard train, but it had high hazardous materials that are very flammable that just lit up the sky. So is that something that you would consider that should be looked at as a safety improvement? Jennifer Homendy: Yes, Senator. We think that the thresholds of the 20 and 35 should be eliminated and we think a broader array of hazmat should be in the definition of high hazard flammable train.
Protecting Public Health and the Environment in the Wake of the Norfolk Southern Train Derailment and Chemical Release in East Palestine, Ohio
March 9, 2023
Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works
- Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH)
- Sen. JD Vance (R-OH)
- Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA)
- Alan Shaw, President and CEO, Norfolk Southern Corporation
- Debra Shore, Regional Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region V
- Anne Vogel, Director, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency
- Richard Harrison, Executive Director and Chief Engineer, Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission
- Eric Brewer, Director and Chief of Hazardous Materials Response, Beaver County Department of Emergency Services
26:50 Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH): The company followed the Wall Street business model: boost profits by cutting costs at all costs, the consequences for places like East Palestine be damned. In 10 years, Norfolk Southern eliminated 38% of its workforce. Think of that. In a decade they cut more than a third of their jobs. We see what the company did with their massive profits. Norfolk Southern spent $3.4 billion on stock buybacks last year and were planning to do even more this year. That’s money that could have gone to hiring inspectors, to putting more hotbox detectors along its rail lines, to having more workers available to repair cars and repair tracks. Norfolk Southern’s profits have gone up and up and up and look what happened.
33:35 Sen. JD Vance (R-OH): It is ridiculous that firefighters and local officials don’t know that hazardous chemicals are in their community, coming through their community. In East Palestine you had a community of largely volunteer firefighters responding to a terrible crisis, toxic burning chemicals, without knowing what was on them.
34:50 Sen. JD Vance (R-OH): I’ve talked to a number of my Republican colleagues and nearly everybody has dealt in complete good faith, whether they like the bill or have some concerns about it, and these comments are not directed at them. Who they are directed at is a particular slice of people who seem to think that any public safety enhancements for the rail industry is somehow a violation of the free market. Well, if you look at this industry and what’s happened in the last 30 years, that argument is a farce. This is an industry that enjoys special subsidies that almost no industry enjoys. This is an industry that is enjoys special legal carve outs that almost no industry enjoys. This is an industry that just three months ago had the federal government come in and save them from a labor dispute. It was effectively a bailout. And now they’re claiming before the Senate and the House that our reasonable legislation is somehow a violation of the free market. Well, pot, meet the kettle, because that doesn’t make an ounce of sense. You cannot claim special government privileges, you cannot ask the government to bail you out, and then resist basic public safety.
40:10 Alan Shaw: Air and water monitoring have been in place continuously since the accident and to date it consistently indicated that the air is safe to breathe and the water is safe to drink.
47:20 Debra Shore: Since the fire was extinguished on February 8, EPA monitors have not detected any volatile organic compounds above levels of health concerns.
47:45 Debra Shore: EPA has been assisting with indoor air screenings for homes through a voluntary program offered to residents to provide them with information and help restore their peace of mind. As of March 4, approximately 600 homes had been screened through this program and no detections of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride have been identified.
48:40 Debra Shore: On February 21, we issued a unilateral administrative order to Norfolk Southern which includes a number of directives to identify and clean up contaminated soil and water resources, to attend and participate in public meetings at EPA’s request, and to post information online, to pay for EPA’s costs for work performed under this order. EPA is overseeing Norfolk Southern’s cleanup work to ensure it’s done to EPA specifications. The work plans will outline all steps necessary to clean up the environmental damage caused by the derailment. And most importantly, if the company fails to complete any of the EPA ordered actions, the agency will immediately step in, conduct the necessary work, and then force Norfolk Southern to pay triple the cost.
1:04:30 Eric Brewer: Norfolk Southern hazmat personnel and contractors arrived on scene shortly after 11pm. At around midnight, after research of the contents, it was decided to shut down fire operations and move firefighters out of the immediate area and to let the tank cars burn. This is not an unusual decision. This decision was made primarily by Norfolk Southern’s hazmat coordinator, as well as their contractor.
1:05:15 Eric Brewer: There was a possibility of explosion and we should consider a one mile evacuation. Ohio officials notified us that the one mile radius would now be from the leaked oil address. This would add additional residents from Beaver County in the one mile evacuation zone. Donington township officials went door to door, as well as using a mass notification system to advise the residents of the one mile recommended evacuation. It was stressed that this was a recommendation as we cannot force residents from their homes. Social media posts began to circulate stating that arrest would be made if people refused to leave during the evacuation. Let me be clear that was not the case in Pennsylvania, as this was not a mandatory evacuation. Monday morning, we assembled at the Emergency Operations Center in East Palestine. We learned Norfolk Southern wanted to do a controlled detonation of the tank car in question. We were assured this was the safest way to mitigate the problem. During one of those planning meetings, we learned from Norfolk Southern that they now wanted to do the controlled detonation on five of the tank cars rather than just the one. This changed the entire plan, as it would now impact a much larger area.
1:21:25 Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV): Why did you wait a month before you started to order the dioxin testing when the community was asking for this? Was that a decision that you made early on that it wasn’t critical? Or how was this decision made? Debra Shore: Senator Capito, our air monitoring was searching for primary indicators, such as phosgene and hydrogen chloride, immediately during and after the burn. We detected very low levels which very quickly went even down to non detectable. Without those primary indicators, it was a very low probability that dioxins would have been created. They are secondary byproducts of the burning of vinyl chloride.
1:25:40 Alan Shaw: As you saw just this week, a six point safety plan that included a number of issues which we’re implementing immediately to improve safety, including installing more wayside detectors. The first one was installed yesterday outside of East Palestine.
1:30:20 Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK): Mr. Shaw, when the vent and burn process was being made, who who made those decisions? And what was other considerations other than just burning it and letting the material burn off? Alan Shaw: Thank you for that question. The only consideration, Senator, was the safety and health of the community. And that decision was made by Unified Command under the direction of the Incident Commander? Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK): Who’s that? Alan Shaw: The Incident Commander was Fire Chief Drabick. Norfolk Southern was a part of Unified Command.
2:07:25 Alan Shaw: Senator, the NTSB report indicated that all of the hotbox detectors were working as designed. And earlier this week, we announced that we are adding approximately 200 hotbox detectors to our network. We already have amongst the lowest spacing between hotbox detectors in the industry. And we already have amongst the lowest thresholds.
2:15:35 Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA): Will you commit to compensating affected homeowners for their diminished property values? Alan Shaw: Senator, I’m committing to do what’s right. Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA): Well, what’s right is a family that had a home worth $100,000 that is now worth $50,000 will probably never be able to sell that home for 100,000 again. Will you compensate that family for that loss? Alan Shaw: Senator, I’m committed to do what’s right. Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA): That is the right thing to do. These are the people who are innocent victims, Mr. Shaw. These people were just there at home and all of a sudden their small businesses, their homes are forever going to have been diminished in value. Norfolk Southern owes these people. It’s an accident that is basically under the responsibility of Norfolk Southern, not these families. When you say do the right thing, will you again, compensate these families for their diminished lost property value for homes and small businesses? Alan Shaw: Senator, we’ve already committed $21 million and that’s a downpayment Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA): That is a down payment. Will you commit to ensuring that these families, these innocent families, do not lose their life savings in their homes and small businesses? The right thing to do is to say, “Yes, we will.” Alan Shaw: Senator, I’m committed to doing what’s right for the community and we’re going to be there as long — Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA): What’s right for the community will then be balanced — which is what we can see from your stock buybacks — by what’s right for Norfolk Southern.
March 6, 2023
- Heather Long, Columnist and Editorial Writer, Washington Post
- Jennifer Homendy, Chair, National Transportation Safety Board
5:14 Jennifer Homendy: Hazardous materials are transported on all modes of transportation. Our aviation system is the safest, but they’re limited in what they can transport for dangerous materials. Pipelines can also be safe as well. They have a generally good safety record until one big rupture occurs. But then our railroads also have a good safety record. Train accidents in general, per million trains miles, are going up. So it’s trending upwards, accidents. With that said, going on our nation’s roads with these materials is not something we want to see. You know, we have 43,000 people that are dying on our nation’s roads annually. We have a public health crisis on our roads. Millions of crashes are occurring, so transporting hazmat on our roads would be more dangerous than on our railways.
6:50 Jennifer Homendy: The numbers are trending upward on accidents overall and also for Norfolk Southern
8:20 Jennifer Homendy: That is a role that’s very important for the NTSB and why we are independent of the Department of Transportation. We are not part of the Department of Transportation because we do conduct federal oversight to see if DoT’s oversight of the freight railroads is adequate or inadequate and we may make recommendations on that.
10:20 Jennifer Homendy: Once it hit well over 250 degrees, it was time for the train crew to stop to inspect the axle, to inspect the wheel bearing and to possibly, in this case, set out the car. But it was too late because as they were slowing and stopping, the train derailed, the wheel bearing failed. And so there might need to be more conservative temperature thresholdss o that started earlier. Also, something the Transportation Safety Board of Canada has looked at is real time monitoring of temperatures and data trending from the control center so that they can see the temperatures increase over a period of time. In this derailment, or what we saw of this train and its operations, is the temperature of that wheel bearing was going up pretty significantly over the course of the three different wayside detectors, but you know, the crew doesn’t see that. So that real time monitoring and data trending so that there’s some communication with the crew to stop the train and take immediate action is definitely needed. We’ll look at that as part of our investigation as well.
12:30 Jennifer Homendy: One thing I will mention is that these decisions about the placement of these hot bearing detectors and the thresholds really vary railroad by railroad and so there needs to be good decision making, some policies and practices put in place.
18:00 Jennifer Homendy: Electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes don’t prevent a derailment. It could lessen damage. So let me explain that. So in this one, car 23 still would have derailed because a wheel bearing failed. So car 23 still would have derailed. Still would have been a derailment, still would have been a fire, and the responders, and Norfolk Southern, and the state and locals would have had to still make a decision on whether to vent and burn the five vinyl chloride tank cars. There could have been a possibility of less damage, meaning a few cars could have remained on the track later in the train. But as for most of the damage, that still would have occurred whether we had ECP brakes on this train or not.
19:50 Heather Long: There’s a lot fewer people working on rail, especially freight rail. Does the number of people make any difference here? Jennifer Homendy: Well for this one, as you said, we had two crew members and a trainee. They all stay, as with every train, in the cab of the head locomotive. So I do not see where that would have made a difference in this particular train and this derailment. One thing we are going to look at is whether any changes in staffing lead to any differences in how these cars are maintained or how they’re inspected. That is something we will look at.
21:05 Jennifer Homendy: Yeah, so the fire chief, upon arrival at the command center following the derailment, had electronic access to the train consist, which is the list of cars and the materials or liquids that the train is carrying, but none of the responders had the Ask Rail app. You could look up a UN number for a particular car and get the whole consist of the train. It’s in an app that the railroads developed for helping emergency responders to get information following an accident.
25:05 Jennifer Homendy: And we have over 250 recommendations that we’ve issued on rail safety generally that have not been acted upon yet.