NTSB: East Palestine Derailment Disaster ‘100% Preventable’

Investigators have announced that the Norfolk Southern Railroad derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, which caused a toxic chemical spill and contaminated the air and water, was 100% preventable. In their preliminary report, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) stated that the operator received warnings that could have prevented the incident.

The agency revealed that a critical audible alarm message instructed the crew to slow and stop the train to inspect a hot axle. The train’s engineer, already braking due to a train ahead, increased the dynamic brake application to further slow and stop the train.

This week’s preliminary report also tentatively corroborated reports that a wheel bearing severely overheated ahead of the accident, based on examining the first car to derail, local surveillance cameras, and signal data. Nearby surveillance footage showed a wheel bearing in late-stage overheat failure immediately before the accident.

The train had passed through several hot bearing detectors, repeatedly testing hotter than average. By the third detector, the bearing was 253 degrees above average, which meets Norfolk Southern’s criteria for “critical.” According to the preliminary report, the train applied brakes at that point but could not stop. NTSB investigators have taken possession of the wheel bearing in question and the affected wheel mechanism, and the investigation is ongoing.

NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy announced that the agency would conduct a rare investigative field hearing this spring in East Palestine to collect more information on the derailment. The hearing will reportedly aim to inform the public, collect factual information from witnesses, discuss possible solutions and build consensus for needed rail safety changes. The NTSB’s final report will likely take 12 to 18 months to be completed and published.

The Norfolk Southern Railway train with 38 cars derailed on February 3. Several of the train’s cars contained vinyl chloride, a highly hazardous substance used to produce plastics. Federal and state officials say drinking water in the area is safe. Still, both Gov. Mike DeWine (R) and Joe Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan have recommended that residents drink bottled water for now.

Homendy emphasized that potential environmental hazards are under the jurisdiction of the EPA, which will take over the cleanup effort and require Norfolk Southern to assume responsibility. If the NTSB sees a safety issue that needs addressing immediately, something systemic, it will not hesitate to issue an urgent safety recommendation, she added.