When a Norfolk Southern Corp. train derailed earlier in February, creating a fiery crash that spilled chemicals across a small Ohio town, long-simmering tensions in the U.S. ignited along with it.
While the crash didn’t cause any injuries or deaths, it has become a focal point of grievances and suspicions. Some have said corporate greed is taking precedence over rail safety and environmental protection. Others have accused the federal government of downplaying the incident because of the town’s conservative political leanings.
Underneath the hot-tempered debate, investigators are seeking to understand the root cause of the crash and how such incidents can be prevented. If all goes well those findings – likely to be laid out in a public report in a few weeks – will better inform discussions about the crash. But after three years of a divisive and deadly pandemic, there’s no guarantee answers will help.
“The politicization of the Covid response has unfortunately bled over into these other types of emergencies and disasters,” said Jennifer Horney, a professor of epidemiology with the University of Delaware. “A disaster declaration should be free of partisanship.”
So far the focus of the National Transportation Safety Board investigation has been on the moments before the February 3rd derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, which caused 38 of the train’s 150 cars to veer off path.
The NTSB has pointed to video evidence that shows a wheel bearing on one of the cars catching fire before the derailment. The wheels from that segment of the train will be taken to the NTSB’s laboratory in Washington for examination.
A faulty wheel bearing raises other questions, such as why sensors placed along the tracks, known as hot-box detectors, didn’t immediately warn there was overheating. Railroads have relied more on such sensors, which aren’t mandated by law, to help detect initial failures before they turn catastrophic.
NTSB investigators will also examine the cars themselves, and scour data from the event recorder and wayside sensors, to prepare their report. In a reflection of the times, NTSB Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy made a plea on Twitter for people to stop spreading misinformation about the accident.
“Anyone speculating about what happened, didn’t happen, or should’ve happened is misleading a suffering community,” Homendy said in a series of tweets.
Train safety was already a flashpoint before the Norfolk Southern crash. Large railroads in the US shed more than 40,000 workers since 2016 under a strategy called Precision Scheduled Railroading. That boosted profits but ruffled customers, who had to adjust their schedules for freight pickup, and angered workers, who were stretched thin.
“For the industry as a whole, there’s an impact from the PSR business model that they use,” said Mark Wallace, vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. “Part of that is the safety aspect, and especially when it goes toward inspections.”
Major rail companies, including Union Pacific Corp. and CSX Corp., dispute the characterizations things are more dangerous. They say they have improved safety, and there are statistics that back up the claim. US train derailments dropped to 1,093 in 2022, from 2,435 in 2004.
That still means there are about three derailments a day. On February 16th federal and local officials sought to soothe residents of East Palestine in a town hall. Around the same time, another Norfolk Southern train derailed near Detroit.
Each of those accidents carry risk. Railroads are the main mode of transportation for hazardous materials, hauling 992 million tons of chemicals in 2021. The Norfolk Southern train had about 20 railcars containing chemicals including vinyl chloride, ethylhexyl acrylate and isobutylene, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Vinyl chloride is considered a carcinogen.
The derailment may cost Norfolk Southern more than $100 million for remediation and other claims, including class-action lawsuits by residents seeking medical monitoring and property damages, according to Bloomberg Intelligence analysts Holly Froum and Lee Klaskow in a February 17th research note.
Authorities have tried to reassure East Palestine residents by testing the water and air. State officials said that, apart from thousands of dead fish, animals and livestock were not impacted by the chemicals. Still, residents have been wary and fearful of returning to their homes. Social media has run wild with reports of scores of pets dying.
That wide access to real-time media has given a megaphone to political figures, who have broadened the discussion about the crash to tangential problems – and conspiracy theories. Ohio Senator J.D. Vance, on Fox News, accused Joe Biden and the media of ignoring the crash for political reasons. Biden administration officials said they’re addressing it.
East Palestine residents were unnerved by a decision to vent and burn vinyl chloride in five railcars three days after the accident, which caused a dramatic explosion with dark smoke and flames billowing into the air. Authorities said they were forced into that option after pressure-release valves on the tank cars seemed to be getting clogged as the chemicals thickened, potentially causing uncontrolled ruptures that would have spewed chemicals and sharp metal in all directions.
The NTSB has a reputation of doing thorough investigations without political pressure that help improve the safety of the industry, according to Henry Posner III, chairman of the Railroad Development Corp. The perception of reliability will be important as tempers continue to flare.
“They work for the greater cause of improving how transportation works,” Posner said of the NTSB. “People must have confidence in the system and confidence in the regulator.”
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