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(WASHINGTON) — The head of the National Transportation Safety Board said the agency “is working vigorously to understand what caused” the Feb. 3 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
In a rare series of posts on Twitter on Thursday evening, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy issued “a message to the community” as well as “a plea to those spreading misinformation.”
“To everyone affected: know that @NTSB is working vigorously to understand what caused this train derailment — so it never happens again,” Homendy tweeted. “You have my personal commitment that the NTSB will CONTINUE to share all information publicly as soon as possible following our analysis.”
“Next: NTSB investigators will thoroughly examine the tank cars once decontaminated. As always, we’ll issue urgent safety recommendations as needed,” she continued. “Urgent safety recommendations may be issued at any time; meaning, we don’t wait until the end of our investigation if immediate safety action is warranted.”
She added: “Nothing…nothing is more important than accuracy at a moment like this, which is why the NTSB is deliberate in our approach to investigations. Credibility is ESSENTIAL to our lifesaving mission. The NTSB process WORKS.
Homendy then tweeted: “That leads me to my last point: anyone speculating about what happened, didn’t happen, or should’ve happened is misleading a suffering community — PLEASE STOP SPREADING MISINFORMATION.”
The NTSB chair addressed speculation that a rule on electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) breaks — if implemented — would have prevented the train derailment, which she said was “FALSE.”
“The ECP braking rule would’ve applied ONLY to HIGH HAZARD FLAMMABLE TRAINS. The train that derailed in East Palestine was a MIXED FREIGHT TRAIN containing only 3 placarded Class 3 flammable liquids cars,” she tweeted. “This means even if the rule had gone into effect, this train wouldn’t have had ECP brakes.”
Finally, Homendy urged members of the public to let her agency lead the investigation.
“Anything else is harmful — and adding pain to a community that’s been through enough,” she tweeted. “But…if this derailment has moved you to want to become a safety investigator, we’d love to have you at the NTSB.”
Earlier this week, the NTSB shared an update on its ongoing probe into the incident, saying “investigators have identified and examined the rail car that initiated the derailment.”
“Surveillance video from a residence showed what appears to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment,” the NTSB said in the investigative update on Tuesday. “The wheelset from the suspected railcar has been collected as evidence for metallurgical examination. The suspected overheated wheel bearing has been collected and will be examined by engineers from the NTSB Materials Laboratory in Washington, D.C.”
On the night of Feb. 3, about 50 cars of a freight train operated by Norfolk Southern Railway derailed in a fiery crash on the outskirts of East Palestine, a tiny village in northeastern Ohio, nestled near the state line with Pennsylvania. Ten of the derailed cars were transporting hazardous materials, five of which contained vinyl chloride, a highly volatile colorless gas produced for commercial uses. There were no injuries reported from the accident, officials said.
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 1-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.
Ohio Department of Natural Resources director Mary Mertz said during a press conference on Tuesday that four tributaries over a space of 7.5 miles along the Ohio River are contaminated, but officials are confident that those waterways are contained and not affecting water supplies. Nevertheless, the contaminated waterways have led to the deaths of some 3,500 fish. None of the 12 different species of dead fish that were detected are considered threatened or endangered, and there was no evidence that non-aquatic life has been impacted, according to Mertz.
Tiffani Kavalec, chief of the Ohio EPA’s surface water division, told reporters on Tuesday that no vinyl chloride or pre-product has been detected in the water. The contamination mostly consists of fire contaminant combustion materials, according to Kavalec.
The office of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced on Wednesday that the latest tests conducted by the state’s Environmental Protection Agency show five wells feeding into East Palestine’s municipal water system are free from contaminants. But residents with private wells are encouraged to drink from bottled water instead, until their well water has been tested and cleared for consumption, according to the governor’s office.
“With these tests results, Ohio EPA is confident that the municipal water is safe to drink,” DeWine’s office said in a statement. “Because private water wells may be closer to the surface than the municipal water wells, the Ohio EPA recommends that those who receive drinking water from private water wells schedule an appointment for well water testing by an independent consultant.”
During a visit to East Palestine on Thursday, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan emphasized that residents should trust the testing if they’re told it’s safe to move back home. But he said individual families could make different decisions based on their health concerns and that families who haven’t had their homes tested yet should stay away.
“If those homes have been tested and if those homes have been tested by the state and given a clean bill of health, yes, as a father, I trust the science,” Regan told reporters. “I trust the methodology that the state is using. And as a parent, I would.”
“I would encourage every family in this community to reach out to the state or EPA to get their home air quality tested and their water system,” he added. “We have the resources to do it. We want to do it and want people to feel secure and safe in their own homes.”
Regan said the EPA has assisted with the screening of more than 480 homes in East Palestine under the voluntary screening program offered to residents, with no vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride detected. But he also said that he understands why some residents are questioning the information they’re being provided, while still asking them to “trust” the EPA and reach out to get their residence tested if they have any concerns.
“But for those who can’t,” he added, “I am asking that they trust the government. And that’s hard. We know that there is a lack of trust, which is why the state and the federal government have pledged to be very transparent.”
The EPA administrator also vowed to hold Norfolk Southern Railway accountable.
In an open letter released Thursday, Norfolk Southern Railway President and CEO Alan Shaw stated that the Atlanta-based rail operator has not abandoned East Palestine residents and is committing $1 million to a community support fund as a “down payment” on their contribution in rebuilding the village. He noted the work the company has already started, including cleaning up the derailment site and working to facilitate testing on the water, air and soil in East Palestine.
Earlier this week, Norfolk Southern Railway announced in a statement that it has helped 1,000 families as well as a number of businesses in East Palestine since the Feb. 3 train derailment. The company said it has also distributed $1.2 million to families to cover costs related to the evacuation.
“I hear you, we hear you,” Shaw said in the open letter. “My simple answer is that we are here and will stay here for as long as it takes to ensure your safety and to help East Palestine recover and thrive.”
ABC News’ Victoria Arancio, Peter Charalambous, Brandon Chase, Stephanie Ebbs, Alexandra Faul, Julia Jacobo, Isabella Murray and Alex Presha contributed to this report.
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