(EAST PALESTINE, Ohio) — The National Transportation Safety Board will start taking sworn testimony Thursday as part of its probe into the toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
The agency is holding an investigative hearing on Thursday and Friday in East Palestine, where a Norfolk Southern Railway train carrying toxic chemicals derailed on Feb. 3, resulting in the release of hazardous materials into the air, soil and creeks in the area.
A preliminary NTSB report released in the weeks following the incident found that a wheel bearing failed moments before 38 cars derailed in the incident — including 11 tank cars carrying hazardous materials that subsequently ignited.
Five of the tank cars contained 115,580 gallons of vinyl chloride, a highly volatile colorless gas produced for commercial uses. Responders subsequently conducted an hourslong controlled release and burn of the vinyl chloride, causing a large ball of fire and sending a plume of black smoke filled with contaminants into the air.
The two-day hearing, described as a “fact-finding step” in the NTSB’s safety investigation, is expected to focus on the communications and preparedness for the initial emergency response, what led to the decision to vent and burn the vinyl chloride tank cars, and the freight car bearing failure modes and wayside detection systems, among other topics.
Witnesses, who will testify under oath, will include representatives of Norfolk Southern, the Federal Railroad Administration, the Ohio National Guard and several local fire and police departments, the NTSB said. A detailed list of the witnesses will become available at the start of the hearing.
Those able to ask witnesses questions include NTSB’s board members and investigative staff and designated parties, including the Norfolk Southern Corporation, Federal Railroad Administration, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and Village of East Palestine.
The NTSB will use the information gathered during the hearing to “complete the investigation, determine probable cause, and make recommendations to improve transportation safety,” the agency said. Its full investigation could take up to 18 months from the date of the accident to complete, it said.
“The communities most affected by this tragedy deserve as much insight as possible into our investigation, which is why we’re holding an investigative hearing in East Palestine,” NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said in a statement. “While we unfortunately cannot change what happened that day, our entire agency is committed to carrying out our mission, which doesn’t end when we get to the bottom of what happened and why it happened — we’ll also work vigorously to prevent it from ever happening again.”
The hearing is scheduled to occur Thursday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. ET and Friday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET. at East Palestine High School and will be streamed live on the NTSB’s YouTube channel.
Homendy had previously called the derailment “100% preventable.”
“We call things ‘accidents.’ There is no accident. Every single event that we investigate is preventable,” she said upon the release of the NTSB’s preliminary report in February.
There were no reported fatalities or injuries in the derailment.
First responders implemented a 1-mile evacuation zone surrounding the derailment site, impacting up to 2,000 residents. The mandatory evacuation order was lifted on Feb. 8 after air and water samples taken the day before were deemed safe, officials said.
Health and safety concerns have lingered in the aftermath of the incident, and several residents filed a class-action lawsuit against Norfolk Southern, seeking punitive damages as well as a fund for medical monitoring and testing, among other relief.
Ohio also filed a lawsuit against Norfolk Southern in March, alleging the railway operator violated various federal and state environmental laws and Ohio Common Law, “recklessly endangering” the health of residents and Ohio’s natural resources, the state district attorney’s office said.
After the lawsuit was announced, Norfolk Southern said that it is “listening closely to concerns from the community about whether there could be long-term impacts from the derailment.”
“We are making progress every day cleaning the site safely and thoroughly, providing financial assistance to residents and businesses that have been affected, and investing to help East Palestine and the communities around it thrive,” Norfolk Southern said in a statement.
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw testified before the Senate in March, as Washington lawmakers held their first hearing on railroad safety about a month after the derailment. During his opening statement, Shaw said he was “determined to make this right,” and that Norfolk Southern will clean the site “safely, thoroughly and with urgency.”
On the eve of his Senate testimony, Shaw said his company was committed to improving rail safety in a Washington Post op-ed.
Contaminated soil and waste continue to be removed from the derailment site for off-site treatment and disposal. Air monitoring and soil and drinking water sampling are also ongoing, which have not detected concerning levels of any contaminants, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Norfolk Southern 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, U.S. EPA Administrator Michael Regan announced on Feb. 21. If Norfolk Southern does not comply, the company will be ordered to pay triple the cost.
As of March 16, Norfolk Southern said it had committed approximately $24 million to the community of East Palestine “with more to come.”
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