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Official says Norfolk Southern fire likely started in rail car containing resin

The fire that led to the Feb. 3 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, likely started in a rail car containing plastic resin, a government official said last week.

In testimony before a U.S. Senate committee, Jennifer Homendy said that “the combination of the plastic pellets in the 23rd car and the hot axle of that car likely started the initial fire.” Homendy is chair of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Homendy did not specify what type of resin was being carried by the car that caught fire. A list previously posted online by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showed that the train had four cars of PVC and two cars each of polyethylene and polypropylene.

Two of the PVC cars were listed as “involved in fire,” according to the list. The two cars of PP resin were not involved in the derailment. The status of the two cars of PE was unclear.

The Norfolk Southern train also was carrying five cars of vinyl chloride monomer, a feedstock used to make PVC resin. Rising temperatures in one of those cars created the risk of an explosion and led railroad and state crews to drain and burn all five cars on Feb. 5, leading to chemical odors and thick black smoke. The five cars contained a total of almost 116,000 gallons of VCM.

NTSB on March 21 released results of their testing of the pressure release devices on the VCM cars. The board “found anomalies with the function of some PRDs that may have compromised their pressure relieving capability” and that, according to the manufacturer’s specifications, one of the installed PRD’s internal spring was coated with aluminum, which is not compatible with VCM.

The anomalies that were found “will require further testing and evaluation to assess the impact on the operation of the PRDs,” officials said. They added that while aluminum debris from melted protective housing covers entered the PRD discharge areas, there was no evidence that melted aluminum entered the tank. NTSB “continues to assess if the debris impacted the PRD operation,” they said.

Local residents — some of whom had been evacuated — have expressed concerns over potential health risks from the VCM burnoff, as well as potential impact to air, soil and water in the area.

“The temperature inside one tank car was still rising, which suggested that the vinyl chloride was undergoing polymerization, a chemical chain reaction that could pose an explosion hazard,” Homendy said in her testimony.

She added that NTSB “had no role in the decision to vent and burn the five vinyl chloride tank cars; however, we will evaluate that decision and the process for carrying out the vent and burn in our investigation.”

NTSB’s investigation is ongoing, and Domendy said an investigative field hearing will be held in East Palestine in June. According to Domendy, the hearing “will allow us to gather sworn testimony from witnesses on issues identified by the investigative team for this accident…[and] will be wholly fact-finding in nature and open to the public.

She added that future investigative activity will include a focus on tank car design and derailment damage, a review of the accident response, including the venting and burning of the VCM and the railroad’s rail car inspection practices.

On March 22, the U.S. EPA said that its command center in East Palestine “has prepared for a significant rain event forecasted for the area.” 

EPA officials said that the agency has reviewed preliminary data from some soil sampling related to the controlled VCM burn. Final results will be available in the coming weeks, but they said that EPA’s review of preliminary data indicates levels of semi-volatile organic chemicals and dioxins in the samples are similar to typical background levels.

As of March 20, almost 15,000 pounds of contaminated soil have been removed from the area, as well as 7 million gallons of liquid waste, according to EPA. Most of that soil has been taken to sites in Ohio to be incinerated. The remainder will be placed in landfills in Michigan and Indiana. Liquid waste from the area is being disposed of through deep well injection at sites in Ohio, Michigan and Texas.

On March 9 during a U.S. Senate hearing on the derailment, NS President and CEO Alan Shaw testified and apologized for the derailment and its effect on the community. “I am deeply sorry for the impact this derailment has had on the people of East Palestine and surrounding communities, and I am determined to make it right,” he said. “We will clean the site safely, thoroughly, and with urgency.”

To date, NS has provided $25 million in community support and has helped more than 6,000 families at a local assistance center operated by the railroad. NS officials have said that tests performed by their staff and by independent third parties have shown that air and water from the municipal system are safe.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost has sued NS in federal court, seeking to hold the railroad financially responsible for the derailment. In a March 14 news release, Yost said the incident resulted in “recklessly endangering both the health of area residents and Ohio’s natural resources.”

Yost said the lawsuit will ensure the company keeps its word in supporting the area. The lawsuit says the derailment was “entirely avoidable and the direct result of Norfolk Southern’s practice of putting its own profits above the health, safety and welfare of the communities in which Norfolk Southern operates.”

A preliminary report from NTSB on Feb. 23 cited an overheated wheel bearing as the cause of the derailment. The train was traveling at 47 mph at the time of the derailment, 3 mph below the speed limit for that type of train.

On March 2, NTSB said it was investigating aluminum housing covers on three of the VCM tank cars involved in the derailment. Based on damage assessment inspections, NTSB officials are concerned that aluminum protective housing covers on some tank cars melted or were consumed when pressure relief devices (PRD) vented burning gas while functioning as designed to relieve tank pressure.

NS trains have been involved in three derailments and accidents in Ohio and West Virginia since the East Palestine derailment. On Feb. 17, a mudslide caused five coal cars to derail in Delbarton, W.Va. On March 3, 20 rail cars derailed in Springfield, Ohio. Neither of those incidents resulted in injuries or environmental impact. Then on March 7, NS conductor Louis Shuster was killed when a dump truck hit a train at a rail yard in Cleveland. Shuster, age 46, was outside of the train when it was struck.

In addition, a train operated by CSX derailed March 8 in Sandstone, W. Va., injuring three workers and causing diesel fuel to spill into a nearby river. Parts of the train caught on fire from the derailment, which was caused by debris on the tracks from a recent rockslide.

East Palestine has a population of about 5,000. It is located 15 miles south of Youngstown and about 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

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