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

The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday issued a series of recommendations 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 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 is taking 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 will vote on the findings on Tuesday and plans to release the final report at some point soon.

In its recommendations, the N.T.S.B. said that the Federal Railroad Administration should establish minimum requirements for the track side detectors that are meant to identify dangerously overheated bearings. And it called on the Association of American Railroads, the main industry group, to maintain a database on wheel bearings to assess their risks.

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, sending vast plumes of dark smoke over the town. Norfolk Southern believed that the vinyl chloride’s temperature was rising, which could set off a chemical reaction leading to an 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 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 establish requirements for track side detectors, contending that they would make it harder to operate their networks effectively. Norfolk Southern and other railways said they are taking steps to improve their use of detectors.

In its 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.

Since then, Norfolk Southern settled with the Justice Department and 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.

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