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NTSB to hear from Ohio residents and investigators in probe of train crash


The Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, last year, caused a huge mess and a huge outcry when more than 100,000 gallons of toxic chemicals were released into that small town. It's located near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, and tomorrow, the National Transportation Safety Board will vote on the findings of its investigation. Julie Grant of the Allegheny Front has been following this story. Julie, this derailment happened in February of last year. There's been an ongoing investigation by the NTSB, lawsuits and proposed settlements. We'll get to all that in just a second, but first, take us back and remind us of what happened there.

JULIE GRANT, BYLINE: Yeah, well, it was a chaotic scene in East Palestine. Thirty-eight cars derailed. Some were carrying hazardous materials. There were fires, and people were evacuated. Norfolk Southern was concerned that one of five cars that was carrying vinyl chloride could explode. So Ohio's governor and the East Palestine fire chief approved the rail company's plan to vent the carcinogenic chemical from the five cars and burn it. But that operation led to an explosion and a huge chemical plume that spread contamination throughout this community.

MARTÍNEZ: The NTSB says Tuesday will be its final board meeting on the incident. What has been its findings so far?

GRANT: Yeah. The NTSB has held earlier hearings. They got detailed testimony on everything from freight car wheel bearings to railway defect detectors to a timeline of the emergency response efforts. On Tuesday, the NTSB will vote on its findings and make recommendations based on the investigation.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, you mentioned the decision to vent and burn that vinyl chloride. That's been one of the big issues all along. What's been the discussion about that now?

GRANT: That's one of the things the NTSB has been investigating. It centers around the temperature in one of the vinyl chloride tank cars, and whether it was undergoing a chemical process that could make it blow up. Norfolk Southern's contractor thought this process was happening and said a decision from the governor, fire chief, and others had to be made quickly. But the morning after they approved the vent and burn, the company that owned the vinyl chloride, Oxy Vinyl, said the temperature in that car had actually decreased and was stabilized for many hours. And that indicated they did not actually have to move forward with the vent and burn. NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy was asked about this at an unrelated congressional hearing.

JENNIFER HOMENDY: Oxy Vinyl was on scene. They were left out of the room. The incident commander didn't even know they existed. Neither did the governor. So they were provided incomplete information to make a decision.

GRANT: So that said, Norfolk Southern says it stands by its decision as does Ohio's governor and the East Palestine fire chief who was the commander in charge.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, now, the NTSB's job is to both investigate the causes of the accident and also recommend ways that can be avoided. Once they do all that, what might the findings mean for East Palestine?

GRANT: Well, the NTSB is not a regulatory body, so it can't actually change laws. But as you mentioned, it does make recommendations for improving railway safety for Congress and regulators to consider. So their findings do have an impact. And last week, Ohio's attorney general said he would not sign onto a $310 million federal settlement reached between Norfolk Southern and the U.S. EPA until after the NTSB investigation is finalized tomorrow, so its findings can be considered in the negotiations.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's Julie Grant with the Allegheny Front. Julie, thank you.

GRANT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Julie Grant
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.