NTSB to discuss Ohio freight train wreck cause and recommend ways to prevent future derailments.

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East Palestine, Ohio Residents of East Palestine, Ohio, are bracing themselves for another critical hearing regarding the catastrophic Norfolk Southern freight train derailment that upended their lives last year. Scheduled for Tuesday in their hometown, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will convene to discuss the ongoing investigation and propose recommendations aimed at preventing similar disasters in the future.

On February 3, 2023, a harrowing scene unfolded on the outskirts of East Palestine near the Pennsylvania border when dozens of freight cars careened off the tracks. Among them were 11 carrying hazardous materials, prompting swift evacuations amidst fears of a potentially catastrophic explosion. To mitigate the risk, officials opted to intentionally release and burn toxic vinyl chloride from five railcars, a decision that cast flames and billowing black smoke into the air, despite concerns over potential health impacts.

Early assessments by the NTSB pointed to an overheated bearing on one of the railcars, which sensors along the track failed to detect in time, as the likely trigger for the crash. Subsequent investigative hearings have delved into other contributing factors, including significant cuts in rail personnel and rushed inspection protocols. Additionally, scrutiny has centered on the controversial decision to conduct a controlled release and burn of the vinyl chloride, a critical component in PVC pipe production.

The upcoming hearing is pivotal as it is expected to yield NTSB recommendations aimed at enhancing rail safety protocols. While these recommendations are non-binding, there is potential for legislative action in Congress, given the heightened focus on rail safety following the East Palestine incident.

Over a year ago, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, led by Ohio’s senators, proposed a comprehensive reform package. This legislative effort included mandates for two-person crews and stringent standards for inspection procedures and detection technologies designed to prevent derailments. However, the bill faced resistance in the Senate from Republican lawmakers and the rail industry, stalling progress. Republican leaders in the House opted to defer consideration of new rail safety regulations until after the final NTSB report was issued.

In parallel efforts, federal regulators have pushed for voluntary industry changes, such as participation in an anonymous government hotline for reporting safety concerns. Responding to the East Palestine disaster, the rail industry committed to expanding trackside detection systems, improving data analysis capabilities, and enhancing first responder training and access to critical cargo information.

Norfolk Southern, the operator of the ill-fated train, pledged more than $100 million in aid to East Palestine residents and community initiatives. CEO Alan Shaw also engaged consultants from the nuclear power sector to recommend operational improvements. Despite these efforts, critics have pointed out a historical complacency towards safety standards within the company, with little observable change in day-to-day practices prior to the derailment.

Following the incident, major freight railroads collectively committed to bolstering safety measures. This included the installation of hundreds of additional trackside sensors to monitor conditions like overheating bearings, and a thorough review of data analytics frameworks. The Association of American Railroads affirmed its commitment to collaborating with the NTSB to glean insights from the final report and explore further safety enhancements. Nevertheless, these efforts have yet to yield a significant improvement in the industry’s safety record according to statistics from the Federal Railroad Administration.

Earlier this year, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy underscored that the controversial vent-and-burn operation, which necessitated evacuations and emitted a massive plume of smoke over East Palestine, was deemed unnecessary by the agency’s investigation. Experts from OxyVinyls, the manufacturer of vinyl chloride involved in the incident, supported this assessment during NTSB hearings, asserting that the feared chemical reaction capable of causing explosions was unlikely.

However, local officials, hazardous materials experts, and Ohio’s governor defended the decision to proceed with the burn, citing information available at the time suggesting an imminent explosion was probable. Despite concerns about the release of cancer-causing dioxins, these stakeholders maintained that the controlled burn represented the least risky option under the circumstances.

OxyVinyls has refrained from public comment beyond the testimony provided by its experts during the hearings.

In response to the incident, Norfolk Southern committed to leading an industry-wide initiative aimed at refining protocols for future vent-and-burn decisions in derailment scenarios. This commitment was part of the company’s settlement with federal authorities.

The NTSB inquiry has also shed light on challenges faced by first responders, who initially lacked critical information about the train’s cargo following the derailment. In a significant development, federal officials recently implemented a new rule mandating railroads to promptly inform first responders about the contents of derailed trains. This information is now accessible to over two million responders through an AskRail app, facilitating swift and informed emergency responses.

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