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(EAST PALESTINE, Ohio) — The rail operator at the center of a hazardous train derailment in Ohio announced Monday its plans to “immediately enhance the safety of its operations.”
Norfolk Southern Railway said in a press release that the changes “are based on” the preliminary findings of the National Transportation Safety Board’s ongoing investigation into the Feb. 3 derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
“Reading the NTSB report makes it clear that meaningful safety improvements require a comprehensive industry effort that brings together railcar and tank car manufacturers, railcar owners and lessors, and the railroad companies,” Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan Shaw said in a statement. “We are eager to help drive that effort and we are not waiting to take action.”
While Norfolk Southern called it a “six-point safety plan,” some of the initiatives had already been announced by the company while others followed last week’s proposal of rail safety legislation.
Shaw is set to testify Thursday on the East Palestine derailment before the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
The Atlanta-based company is facing scathing criticism and scrutiny for two major derailments in just over a month. On Saturday, a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed near Springfield, Ohio, though the company said no hazardous materials were involved.
In Monday’s press release, Norfolk Southern said it “will immediately begin” to enhance the hot bearing detector network; pilot next-generation hot bearing detectors; work with industry on practices for hot bearing detectors; deploy more acoustic bearing detectors; accelerate our Digital Train Inspection program; and support a strong safety culture.
Hot bearing detectors are put in place along railroads to assess temperature conditions of wheel bearings while en route as well as the overall health of rail equipment and infrastructure. In the case of the East Palestine derailment, investigators said the detectors had flagged the rapidly rising temperature of one of the Norfolk Southern train’s wheel bearings. But by the time the wheel bearing reached the temperature threshold for the train to stop and be inspected, investigators said it appeared the derailment had already occurred, raising questions about whether there was enough warning or if the detectors should have been able to flag the overheating sooner.
So far, the NTSB’s findings have indicated that an overheated wheel bearing likely caused the East Palestine derailment. It was unclear what caused the Springfield derailment, which the NTSB is also investigating.
Norfolk Southern said it plans to add approximately 200 hot bearing detectors to its network, “with the first installed on the western approach to East Palestine.” The company already had nearly 1,000 detectors along its system. Norfolk Southern said it is also “evaluating the distance between hot bearing detectors, which currently averages 13.9 miles on its core network.” The company noted that it will “examine every location on its core network where the distance is more than 15 miles and develop a plan to deploy additional detectors where practical due to terrain and operating conditions.”
Norfolk Southern said it is working with manufacturers to “accelerate the testing and deployment” of safety technology on its network that “can scan a greater cross-section of a railcar’s bearings and wheels.” These so-called “multi-scan” hot bearing detectors may offer the potential to catch overheated bearings more effectively, the company said.
With questions about whether these detectors should have been able to trigger temperature alarms earlier and if that could have mitigated circumstances in East Palestine, Norfolk Southern said it plans “to work with peers” in the rail industry “to analyze data for patterns that could provide earlier warnings of potential safety issues” and “to review best practices, including response to high-temperature alarms.” Last week, the Federal Railroad Administration issued a safety advisory urging companies to improve the use of their hot bearing detectors.
Moreover, Norfolk Southern said it “will immediately accelerate the deployment of acoustic bearing detectors, which play a different role in its safety inspection program.” The company noted that “these detectors analyze the acoustic signature of vibration inside the axle and can identify potential problems that a visual inspection could not.” Norfolk Southern said it will add 13 new detectors to the five already in service, stationing these devices on high-traffic routes, which the company said “will strengthen the early-warning system that identifies potential risks before they become issues.”
Norfolk Southern said it is also partnering with the Georgia Tech Research Institute in Atlanta to develop more advanced safety inspection technology by using “machine vision and algorithms powered by artificial intelligence to identify defects and needed repairs much more effectively than traditional human inspection.”
The company noted that the new technology will include “ultra-high-resolution cameras stationed in strategic locations around its network,” which “will give Norfolk Southern a 360-degree health check on railcars, improving its ability to detect, diagnose, and repair defects before they become issues.” The company added that it “is accelerating the installation of the next phase of this new technology on its Premier Corridor, which connects the Midwest and Northeast and is the line that runs through East Palestine.”
As part of its six-point plan, Norfolk Southern touted its agreement to join the FRA’s Confidential Close Call Reporting System, or C3RS, which the company did at the urging of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg last week.
On the night of Feb. 3, about 50 cars of a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in a fiery crash on the outskirts of East Palestine, which is nestled near Ohio’s state line with Pennsylvania. Eleven of the derailed cars were transporting hazardous materials, five of which contained vinyl chloride, a highly volatile colorless gas produced for commercial uses. Several cars were also carrying ethyl acrylate and isobutylene, which are considered to be very toxic and possibly carcinogenic. There were no injuries reported from the accident, according to officials.
Efforts to contain a fire at the derailment site stalled the following night, as firefighters withdrew from the blaze due to concerns about air quality and explosions. About half of East Palestine’s roughly 4,700 residents were warned to leave before officials decided on Feb. 6 to conduct a controlled release and burn of the toxic vinyl chloride from the five tanker cars, which were in danger of exploding.
A large ball of fire and a plume of black smoke filled with contaminants could be seen billowing high into the sky from the smoldering derailment site as the controlled burn took place that afternoon, prompting concerns from residents about the potential effects.
A mandatory evacuation order for homes and businesses within a one-mile radius of the derailment site was lifted on Feb. 8, after air and water samples taken the day before were deemed safe, officials said.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency deployed a team to East Palestine on Feb. 18 to help support the ongoing operations there.
On Feb. 23, the NTSB released preliminary findings from its ongoing investigation into the East Palestine derailment. The NTSB report reads, in part: “Surveillance video from a local residence showed what appeared to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment. The wheel bearing and affected wheelset have been collected as evidence and will be examined by the NTSB.” During a press conference, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy called the derailment “100% preventable” and said it was “no accident.”
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan announced on Feb. 21 that his agency is ordering Norfolk Southern “to conduct all necessary actions associated with the cleanup from the East Palestine train derailment.” The rail operator will be required to continue cleaning up the contaminated soil and water and transport it safely; reimburse the EPA for cleaning services; and attend public meetings at the EPA’s request and share information. If Norfolk Southern does not comply, the company will be ordered to pay triple the cost, according to Regan.
As of March 6, approximately 1,970 tons of solid waste and 2.7 million gallons of liquid waste have been collected from the derailment site and hauled out of East Palestine, according to a press release from the office of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, which cited the Ohio EPA. The liquid waste total was revised down from 3.2 million gallons the previous day, which was later said to be a typo.
Norfolk Southern has not said which chemicals were found in the material that was removed.
Meanwhile, DeWine’s office said the EPA has not detected contaminants linked to the Feb. 3 derailment while testing air quality within area homes. Similarly, all sampling of East Palestine’s municipal water supply to date have shown no contaminants associated with the Feb. 3 derailment.
While the majority of homes in the area get drinking water from the municipal supply, some get theirs from private wells. So far, 157 private systems have been sampled, of which 57 test results have been verified and none have shown any harmful contaminant levels linked to the Feb. 3 derailment, according to the governor’s office.
DeWine’s office has said that residents whose drinking water is sourced from private wells should continue drinking bottled water until the testing results are returned. Officials have underscored that those who get their drinking water from private wells should get it tested, especially since those wells may be closer to the surface than municipal water wells and thus potentially easier for any contaminants to seep into.
Last week, six wild animals — four raccoons, one muskrat and one snapping turtle — were found dead in or around Sulphur Run, a creek that flows through downtown East Palestine and near the derailment site. Although some of the animals were too decomposed for lab work, preliminary reports showed “no evidence to support chemical toxicity as a cause of death,” according to the governor’s office.
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