NTSB Ohio train derailment report points to overheated wheel

Workers continue to clean up remaining tank cars, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, in East Palestine, Ohio, following the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern freight train derailment.

Matt Freed | AP

Federal authorities on Thursday pointed to an overheated wheel bearing on a Norfolk Southern train that derailed and released toxic chemicals earlier this month in Ohio.

The preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board did not offer an exact cause of the East Palestine, Ohio, derailment but outlined several operational concerns.

“Surveillance video from a local residence showed what appeared to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment,” the report said. “The wheel bearing and affected wheelset have been collected as evidence and will be examined by the NTSB.”

Future investigative activity will focus on the wheelset and bearing, tank car design and maintenance procedures, derailment damage, inspection practices and a review of the accident response.

At about 9 p.m. local time on Feb. 3, an eastbound Norfolk Southern freight train derailed, including 11 tank cars carrying hazardous materials that subsequently ignited. These chemicals included vinyl chloride, a highly flammable carcinogen. Thirty-eight railcars derailed in the incident, according to the NTSB report.

According to the report, the train was traveling about 47 miles per hour at the time of the derailment, below the speed limit of 50 miles per hour. The train’s positive train control system, in place to prevent over-speed derailments, was operating at the time of the derailment.

After the train passed a wayside defect detector, it transmitted an alarm message instructing the crew to stop the train to inspect the hot axle. The Norfolk Southern train was equipped with a hot bearing detector system, designed to detect overheated bearings.

At the time the train was instructed to stop, the bearing’s temperature recorded a temperature of 253 degrees hotter than ambient temperatures, above a threshold of 200 degrees at which point temperatures are considered critical, according Norfolk Southern criteria. At the previous detector, it recorded a temperature of 103 degrees above ambient temperatures. The report said temperatures between 170 to 200 degrees require a stop.

A one-mile evacuation zone was implemented after the derailment, impacting up to 2,000 residents.

Two days after the derailment, temperatures continued to rise within five of the derailed tank cars carrying 115,580 gallons of vinyl chloride. Due to the possibility of a catastrophic explosion that could have sent shrapnel up to a mile, Norfolk Southern carried out a controlled release three days later.

No fatalities or injuries were reported.

Working on cleanup

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw told CNBC in an interview that aired Tuesday he believes it’s safe for families to return to East Palestine. Officials reported air levels are safe and the town’s water is free of harmful levels of contaminants.

“Our focus right now is on environmental remediation, cleaning up this site, continual air monitoring, water monitoring, financial assistance to the residents of this community, and investing in this community so that the community in East Palestine can thrive,” Shaw said.

However, residents continue to express skepticism. Ohio opened a health clinic Tuesday to address growing reports on headaches, nausea and rashes in the community, and some residents have reported dead chickens and fish near the site. A number of residents who fled their homes have sued Norfolk Southern.

On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered Norfolk Southern to handle and pay for all cleanup efforts.

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw discusses East Palestine derailment in full CNBC interview

Shaw told CNBC that Norfolk Southern has reimbursed or committed $6.5 million to East Palestine and will continue to provide financial assistance to residents.

The town has become a political hotspot after former President Donald Trump, a Republican, paid a visit on Wednesday to meet with first-responders and local elected officials. Trump, who won Ohio in 2016 and 2020, suggested that the Biden administration had shown “indifference and betrayal” in responding to the crisis — in addition to promoting his name-brand water.

Trump did not mention on Wednesday his administration in 2018 scrapped a 2015 Obama-era rule mandating advanced braking technology on trains transporting hazardous or flammable materials.

The Thursday report comes the same day that Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited the site. Buttigieg sent a letter Sunday to Norfolk Southern, warning that the company must “demonstrate unequivocal support for the people” of East Palestine.

Buttigieg has drawn criticism from Republican politicians for his response to the crisis. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has called on Buttigieg to resign or be fired for “a gross level of incompetence and apathy.” Buttigieg acknowledged in a CBS News interview Tuesday that he “could have spoken sooner about how strongly I felt about this incident.”

National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy and Director of the NTSB’s Office of Railroad, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Robert J. Hall will hold a press conference Thursday afternoon at the agency’s Washington, D.C. headquarters.

Source: https://www.cnbc.com/2023/02/23/ntsb-norfolk-southern-train-derailment-preliminary-report.html