Norfolk Southern East Palestine train fire was ‘unnecessary’: NTSB

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A Norfolk Southern train car derailment last year that unleashed giant clouds of toxic smoke on a small Ohio town didn’t have to happen, according to a new government report. The National Transportation Safety Board released its findings into the fiery East Palestine crash and said that a series of cascading mistakes resulted in a chemical burn that could have been avoided.
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“The decision by the local incident commander three days [after the derailment] to conduct a vent and burn of the contents of the tank cars carrying vinyl chloride monomer was based on incomplete and misleading information provided by Norfolk Southern officials and contractors,” a summary of the report says. “The vent and burn was not necessary to prevent a tank car failure, NTSB investigators found.”
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Besides the fire, the derailment spilled 38,000 gallons of vinyl chloride into the nearby area. In April, Norfolk Southern settled a class-action lawsuit for people living within 20 miles of the derailment for $600 million. In May, it settled pollution charges with the Justice Department for $310 million.
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The cars caught fire in the first place because a key wheel bearing failed and got too hot. When it gave way, 38 train cars went off the tracks. Three of those cars contained flammable materials that started burning when their storage tanks breached.
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(A NTSB bulletin last year noted that the tanker cars in question, the DOT-111, have been linked to other derailment fires and were supposed to be phased out by 2025, before Congressional intervention pushed that date out to 2029. Still, the NTSB said the “continued use of DOT-111 tank cars in hazmat service” contributed to the extremity of the situation.)
After three of the tanker cars started burning, the NTSB says Norfolk Southern contractors came to the incorrect opinion that other hazmat tanker cars were about to ignite as well, despite dissenting opinions from the company that had shipped the materials.
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“NS and its contractors continued to describe polymerization as an imminent threat when expert opinions and available evidence should have led them to reconsider their course of action,” a fuller version of the report says. “NS compromised the integrity of the decision to vent and burn the tank cars by not communicating expertise and dissenting opinions to the incident commander making the final decision. This failure to communicate completely and accurately with the incident commander was unjustified.”
Norfolk Southern, which has said it plans to spend as much as $1.7 billion on environmental cleanup, disagreed with the vent-and-burn part of the NTSB report, which it said it otherwise “appreciates.”
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“After carefully considering all alternatives, Norfolk Southern and its specialist contractors recommended a controlled vent and burn to the Unified Command as the only option to protect the community from a potential catastrophic explosion,” the company said in a statement.

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