Safety Agency Faults Norfolk Southern for ‘Vent and Burn’ After 2023 Derailment


The National Transportation Safety Board issued a series of recommendations on Tuesday aimed at preventing the type of freight train derailment that occurred last year in East Palestine, Ohio, when 38 rail cars operated by Norfolk Southern came off the tracks.

The safety agency also faulted Norfolk Southern for concluding that the hazardous material being transported on 11 of the rail cars was at risk of exploding. That conclusion led to a “vent and burn,” in which toxic chemicals were released and incinerated, resulting in vast plumes of dark smoke rising above the town.

The controlled burn forced many residents of the town to evacuate. The decision has since come under intense scrutiny, and residents still worry about the potential long-term health effects of the smoke that covered the town.

The N.T.S.B. had previously raised doubts about the need for a vent and burn and at a meeting in East Palestine on Tuesday, the agency said the railway had “misinterpreted and disregarded evidence” in reaching that conclusion.

“Norfolk Southern and its contractors continued to assert the necessity of a vent and burn even though available evidence should have led them to re-evaluate their initial conclusions,” said Paul Stancil, a senior investigator of hazardous materials accidents at the N.T.S.B.

The safety agency’s meeting took place ahead of a final report on the accident, which involved a Norfolk Southern train derailing after a wheel bearing overheated. The board of the agency unanimously voted to adopt the findings on Tuesday and plans to release the final report soon.

Railways use track-side detectors to identify when bearings get so hot that they can fail and cause derailments. The Norfolk Southern train traveled for nearly 20 miles before passing such a detector, but while that detector sounded a critical alarm, it was too late to prevent the derailment. That has prompted calls for shorter distances between detectors.

In its recommendations, the N.T.S.B. said that the Federal Railroad Administration should research the detector system and establish requirements for the equipment, including maximum distances between detectors. The N.T.S.B. also raised doubts about the accuracy of the hot-bearing detectors, noting that the one before East Palestine “did not reflect the true temperature and failing condition” of the wheel bearing.

And the agency took aim at the freight rail companies, calling on the Association of American Railroads, the main industry group, to maintain a database on wheel bearings to assess their risks.

“Following today’s hearing,” the association said in a statement, “railroads are reviewing the complete findings and recommendations to identify the potential need for additional research surrounding bearing performance.”

Eleven of the 38 rail cars that derailed contained hazard materials, including vinyl chloride, a chemical used to make plastics. Days after the accident, emergency responders operating under guidance from Norfolk Southern and its contractors decided to release and burn vinyl chloride from derailed cars. Norfolk Southern believed the vinyl chloride’s temperature was rising, which could have set off a chemical reaction leading to an explosion.

The safety board said among the factors complicating the emergency response was Norfolk Southern, and its contractors, creating unnecessary alarm after the derailment by providing emergency responders with inaccurate information and misrepresenting the risk of a chemical explosion.

Thomas Crosson, a spokesman for Norfolk Southern, said the decision to vent and burn was not based solely on the belief that the dangerous chemical reaction might be occurring, noting that the tank cars were damaged and that gauges on the cars seemed to show that pressure was increasing.

“The vent and burn effectively avoided a potential uncontrolled explosion,” Mr. Crosson said in an email. “There was no loss of life, injuries, or damage to property, and contractors took steps to manage environmental impact.”

The safety board recommended on Tuesday that the Federal Railroad Administration update its guidance on when to vent and burn chemicals and ensure it is distributed to emergency responders.

Freight rail has become safer in recent decades, but last year the four largest U.S. freight railway companies reported an overall rise in accidents. Derailments on mainline tracks increased, and there was a sharp rise in incidents in which a wheel bearing overheated, according to federal rail accident data.

In response to the accident, federal lawmakers introduced legislation aimed at improving rail safety. But despite bipartisan support, the bill has not advanced. The rail industry has been critical of several of its provisions, including those that mandate crew size and potentially establish maximum distances between hot-bearing detectors, contending that they would make it harder to operate their networks effectively. Norfolk Southern and other railways said they were taking steps to improve their use of detectors.

“Stronger rail safety regulations are needed immediately,” Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio and a sponsor of the legislation, said in a statement. He added that the report “shows that Norfolk Southern’s greed and neglect for public safety is the reason this derailment happened.”

In the derailment’s aftermath, East Palestine residents said they distrusted the federal government over its slow response and what they perceived as a lack of transparency about what safety measures should be taken. The town’s residents expressed frustration with officials over how quickly trains have resumed barreling through town and feared Norfolk Southern would escape accountability.

“Many of us from the beginning saw their decision to do the vent and burn was mostly about finding the cheapest and fastest way to get Norfolk Southern back up and running,” said Misti Allison, 36, of East Palestine. “The N.T.S.B. has seen that too.”

Since then, Norfolk Southern settled with the Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency for more than $310 million, most of which went to cover past and future environmental cleanup costs. About $15 million is a civil penalty related to claims that the railroad violated the Clean Water Act.

Norfolk Southern did not admit liability in the settlement.

The company said it had already set aside money to cover the costs of the settlement. Overall, it expects to pay out $1.7 billion, including a $600 million settlement of a class-action suit brought by residents and businesses from East Palestine and the surrounding area.

The report on East Palestine is not the end of the N.T.S.B.’s investigations into Norfolk Southern. The agency continues to scrutinize the safety culture of the company in an investigation it opened shortly after the East Palestine derailment.

To close out the hearing, Jennifer Homendy, the chairwoman of the board, detailed for the first time several instances of Norfolk Southern trying to influence the investigation and failing to provide critical information to investigators.

She referred to an instance in which she said text messages between Norfolk Southern employees revealed the existence of information that the freight company had told federal investigators did not exist.

“We are the gold standard when it comes to investigation around the world,” Ms. Homendy said. “I will not allow any entity to impugn that reputation or malign the reputation of our investigative staff, our top-notch investigative staff, which is exactly what the aim was.”

A spokesman for Norfolk Southern said the company “cooperated fully and ethically with the investigation, with full transparency.”



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