NTSB Says Norfolk Southern Threatened Staff as They Investigated the East Palestine Derailment - Inside Climate News (2024)

The chair of the National Transportation Safety Board called Norfolk Southern’s conduct during the board’s investigation of the 2023 train derailment in East Palestine “unconscionable” at a meeting this week to finalize the NTSB’s findings.

Jennifer Homendy, the NTSB chair, said at the close of the eight-hour session that Norfolk Southern “demonstrated complete disregard” for the rules and regulations put in place to protect the integrity of the investigation. She described the company’s behavior at various times as unprecedented, reprehensive, unethical and inappropriate.

When representatives from Norfolk Southern met with her and NTSB staff near the end of the investigation, she said, the company told them this was “an opportunity to close a chapter” and “allow the community to move on.”

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According to Homendy, Norfolk Southern then issued a “threat” that they would “use every avenue and opportunity to vigorously defend their decision-making” in the media and in hearings in the future.

“It is not our role to defend Norfolk Southern. We are here to protect the American people and the traveling public,” she said. Calling the agency “the gold standard” for accident investigation, Homendy said the agency is “impervious to anything but the truth.”

In a statement responding to Homendy’s remarks, Norfolk Southern said their communications with the NTSB were “always motivated by a desire to ensure they had all the relevant information for their independent evaluation and by a shared commitment to advance rail safety.”

During the meeting in East Palestine, investigators presented their findings and evidence and responded to questioning from the board. Investigators said the probable cause of the derailment was a defective wheel bearing on one of the train cars and explained that warning detection systems failed to convey the seriousness of the issue to rail operators in time.

A fire started and spread during the derailment because of hazardous material released from a breached tank car. The agency also voted on and published 31 new recommendations for safety improvements related to the rail industry, emergency response and firefighter training.

The controversial “vent and burn” of five train cars carrying the toxic chemical vinyl chloride, which occurred three days after the derailment, was unnecessary, the investigation concluded. The vent and burn released 115,000 gallons of vinyl chloride into the environment; a new study has shown that at least 16 states were potentially affected by the plume. In the months since, some residents in Ohio and Pennsylvania who live near the derailment site have developed health symptoms and chronic conditions like asthma, persistent coughing, nosebleeds, rashes and hair loss.

The decision to conduct the vent and burn rather than pursuing alternative methods of disposal was “based on incomplete and misleading information provided by Norfolk Southern,” the agency said. Investigators said Norfolk Southern withheld critical data and context about the state of the train cars carrying vinyl chloride from the governor of Ohio and first responders on the scene. That data showed the temperature of the cars was decreasing and not dramatically rising as it would have been if an explosion were imminent.

In a statement from June 25, Norfolk Southern defended the vent and burn as “the only option to protect the community from a potential catastrophic explosion.”

The rail company said “several factors” indicated “the strong possibility” of an uncontrolled explosion and said it had not withheld important information provided to them by Oxy Vinyls, the manufacturer that owned the cars and vinyl chloride.

NTSB Says Norfolk Southern Threatened Staff as They Investigated the East Palestine Derailment - Inside Climate News (2)

On June 21, Norfolk Southern announced it will create a “vent and burn work group” to “assess current practices and existing protocols” around the use of this method.

Mike Schade, a campaign director at Toxic-Free Future, a nonprofit focused on chemical pollutants, called the new details about the vent and burn “a huge slap in the face to the community.” He said the environmental health disaster created by the derailment and fire was “multiplied by 1,000” by the vent and burn, which he compared to “setting off a bomb.”

Schade said the derailment and its wide-ranging impacts highlighted the need to ban vinyl chloride in the United States. “Vinyl chloride is a dinosaur chemical. We’ve known about its dangers going back to the 1960s and 1970s,” he said. “How many more communities or workers have to be harmed before policies are enacted to phase out and ban this hazardous chemical?”

Lesley Pacey, senior environmental officer at the Government Accountability Project, which has worked with whistleblowers to shed light on the government response to the derailment, said there needs to be more accountability for Norfolk Southern’s actions after the derailment to prevent this from happening again.

Pacey urged the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice to reconsider their proposed settlement deal with Norfolk Southern in light of the new evidence. The settlement was announced at the end of May, well before the NTSB’s investigation was finished, which Pacey said was “strange timing.”

Pacey praised Homendy and the NTSB for their work and the “sense of humanity and concern” for affected residents and first responders they brought to the investigation.

“The NTSB has done an amazing job of investigating this and doing what this government agency is designed to do,” she said. “I wish I could say that about all of our government agencies, but that does give me some hope.”

Jami Wallace, an East Palestine resident, was relocated to the town of East Liverpool, Ohio, because her home was contaminated after the derailment. Wallace, who has suffered from respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms since, said the NTSB’s transparency, honesty and commitment to community involvement were commendable and “the first time we’ve gotten that from a government agency.”

Local government officials, the EPA and the lawyers leading a class-action lawsuit related to the derailment have all failed to truly hold Norfolk Southern accountable, she said, and have left sick and displaced residents like her family without the resources and care they need most.

Residents must opt in or out of the class-action lawsuit by July 1, which many feel is not enough time to weigh the complex legal, financial and medical ramifications of joining the settlement. The original opt-out date was the day before NTSB’s board meeting, a scheduling choice that Wallace and others believe was not a coincidence.

“It feels like this can’t be reality, like we’re living in the Twilight Zone,” Wallace said. “You couldn’t make up the stuff that’s going on here. And nobody cares. I just don’t understand how all this is happening, and people aren’t outraged.”

She said East Palestine had been changed by the derailment in ways she could never have foreseen in 2023. Norfolk Southern’s spending in the small town and surrounding areas divided residents against each other, and some people were afraid to speak out about their symptoms or illnesses for fear of retaliation or ridicule from their neighbors.

“They took my hometown. They took my pride in my country. Those are the things that money can’t buy,” Wallace said. In some ways, hearing Homendy call out Norfolk Southern so publicly came as a relief.

NTSB Says Norfolk Southern Threatened Staff as They Investigated the East Palestine Derailment - Inside Climate News (3)

Some affected residents reacted to the findings and Homendy’s statement with anger and dismay, while others saw the investigation as further proof of conclusions they’d already drawn.

“Many findings shared today are not a revelation but a confirmation of Norfolk Southern’s gross negligence,” said Misti Allison, another East Palestine resident who has become a public advocate for those affected by the derailment.“This NTSB report will be cemented in history and provides the sense of justice that my community desperately craves.”

Allison said it was “haunting” to consider that the derailment and vent and burn were “100 percent preventable.”

Other safety issues raised by investigators revolved around the emergency response and a lack of timely information provided to responders about the contents of the tank cars on the train.

The first 911 call about the derailment came in at 8:56 p.m., but the incident commander was not informed about the presence of vinyl chloride until after 10 p.m., and NTSB found that placards meant to identify the cars’ hazardous contents had melted or become otherwise illegible during the fire.

Because of this delay, first responders and the public were exposed to greater risk. Residents living within one mile were evacuated starting at 11 p.m.

Many of the earliest first responders on the scene were volunteer firefighters who did not have adequate training to deal with hazardous materials like vinyl chloride, which is highly flammable and classified as a “known human carcinogen” if inhaled, touched or swallowed. At least one of those firefighters was a teenager at the time of the derailment. The NTSB recommended the state of Ohio update its training requirements for volunteer firefighters so that they would be better prepared for fires like the one in East Palestine.

During the meeting, Homendy often appeared incensed by Norfolk Southern’s conduct. She referred to an earlier Norfolk Southern press release she said blamed first responders for not consulting with Oxy Vinyls about the vent and burn. NTSB investigators said the incident commander initially did not even know Oxy Vinyls was on scene.

“Disgusting that anyone would say that,” she said of the press release’s insinuation of fault on the part of first responders. Local officials were working with “limited information in a very chaotic situation,” she said, and they had “done nothing wrong.”

Later, she shared a photograph of the huge toxic plume released into the atmosphere by the vent and burn and read out a Norfolk Southern employee’s cavalier response to the picture at the time: “That’s cool.”

“It’s not cool, it’s bone-chilling,” Pacey said, reacting to this exchange. “It takes your breath away. Because you know what’s going to happen. It’s going to kill people. Not today, but it’s going to kill people.”

Norfolk Southern said it takes its “responsibility to East Palestine and the surrounding community seriously” and pointed to its investments in environmental remediation and the municipal water system.

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Allison spoke about the need for Norfolk Southern to be held accountable, to implement common sense safety improvements on the rails and to fully cover health monitoring and medical treatment for impacted residents. “While we appreciate the apologies of the train executives, ‘sorry’ isn’t good enough,” she said. “We need action.”

“Mothers will stop at nothing to protect their children. I am in this for the long haul, and I am committed to ensuring the East Palestine community receives all the resources we desperately need to recover and thrive,” Allison said, “and for this horrific and preventable accident to be a catalyst for meaningful change.”

On stage at the board meeting, Homendy shared a message similar to Allison’s. “We can’t change the past,” she said. “What we can do is work to ensure this never happens again.”

A year and a half after this nightmare began, Wallace feels an obligation to warn others that what happened in East Palestine “can happen anywhere.” She wants Americans outside of Ohio and western Pennsylvania to know that the aftermath of the derailment is setting a precedent for the ways that future environmental disasters in the United States will be handled—and that they, too, could someday be at risk, unlikely as that possibility might seem. It was once unlikely to her. “In 47 years, I never once thought, ‘What if a train full of chemicals derails in my community?’” she said.

“These railroad tracks run throughout our country. People need to open their eyes,” she said. “This is not political. It’s not a red issue or blue issue. It’s an issue of human lives.”

NTSB Says Norfolk Southern Threatened Staff as They Investigated the East Palestine Derailment - Inside Climate News (4)

Kiley Bense

Reporter, Pennsylvania

Kiley Bense covers climate change and the environment with a focus on Pennsylvania, politics, energy, and public health. She has reported on the effects of thefracking boom inPennsylvania, the expansion of the American plastics industry, and the intersection of climate change and culture. Her previous work has appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine, the Believer, and Sierra Magazine, and she holds master’s degrees in journalism and creative writing from Columbia University. She is based in Pennsylvania.

NTSB Says Norfolk Southern Threatened Staff as They Investigated the East Palestine Derailment - Inside Climate News (2024)
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