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Ohio train derailment: Buttigieg urges Norfolk Southern to join close call reporting system

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(NEW YORK) — U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg is calling on the rail operator at the center of a hazardous train derailment in Ohio to join a program that would allow its employees to voluntarily and confidentially report close calls.

In letters sent Monday to Norfolk Southern Railway and other major U.S. freight rail companies, Buttigieg said he expects the industry to work in tandem with Congress and the U.S. Department of Transportation to improve safety, strengthen accountability and prevent future disasters in the wake of the Feb. 3 derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

“It is unacceptable that Norfolk Southern could be satisfied with the status quo. Inaction is not an option,” Buttigieg wrote. “On February 21st, our Department laid out several actions that Norfolk Southern and its peers could take immediately to improve rail safety. This included joining the Confidential Close Call Reporting System (C3RS), an important step you could and should undertake today. This common-sense program encourages employees to report safety hazards, including conditions that could lead to derailments, by protecting these workers from reprisal when they come forward. Research has shown that this program works to reduce collisions, injuries, and deaths because it encourages corrective action.”

Yet, as Buttigieg noted, “not one major freight rail company participates” in the program.

“By refusing to take this commonsense step, you are sending an undesirable message about your level of commitment to the safety of your workers and the American communities where you operate,” the secretary wrote.

Although Buttigieg is currently “asking” Norfolk Southern and others to join C3RS, he said his department “proceeds to take appropriate steps toward making this program mandatory.” The secretary added that he “would like a reply by the end of the week, so that your answer is confirmed by the time I present the public with a summary of which companies have agreed to this important safety measure and which have refused.”

“Americans will be interested to know whether Norfolk Southern is willing to take this basic step to address safety and help prevent future disasters like the one that occurred in East Palestine, Ohio,” he wrote, “and I hope you will welcome this opportunity to demonstrate your intentions.”

When asked for comment on Monday, a Norfolk Southern spokesperson was noncommittal in their response but said the company is “actively participating” in the C3RS Working Group that is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Railroad Safety Advisory Committee. Participating in the working group is not the same as taking part in the program that Buttigieg wrote about in his letter.

The spokesperson also noted that Norfolk Southern has its own close call reporting program.

“Norfolk Southern has a close call experience program that encourages employees to report instances they consider to be close calls confidentially through an online portal,” the spokesperson told ABC News. “Our safety and environmental department, along with local safety committees, review the reports to capture teachable moments, which are then shared with employees to improve safety and encourage additional reporting.”

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 National Transportation Safety Board released preliminary findings from its ongoing investigation into the Feb. 3 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.”

U.S. 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 Atlanta-based 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.

On Feb. 25, the U.S. EPA ordered the waste removal to be paused for one day “so that additional oversight measures could be put in place to supervise where Norfolk Southern disposes of the contaminated materials,” according to a press release from the office of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. Norfolk Southern has since resumed removing contaminated soil and liquid from the derailment site.

As of Feb. 27, approximately 4,832 cubic yards of contaminated soil and 1.8 million gallons of liquid waste has been collected for disposal from the derailment site, according to the governor’s office, which cited the Ohio EPA. Norfolk Southern has not said which chemicals were found in the material that was removed.

Of the contaminated soil excavated from the derailment site, approximately 280 tons were disposed of a licensed hazardous waste disposal facility in Michigan, prior to the U.S. EPA’s one-day pause, DeWine’s office said. An additional 28-cubic-yard boxes of contaminated soil were sent Monday to a licensed hazardous waste disposal facility in East Liverpool, Ohio. More contaminated soil will be collected from the derailment site when Norfolk Southern begins removing the rails, according to the governor’s office.

Of the liquid waste removed from the derailment site, approximately 1.249 million gallons were disposed of at a licensed solid waste disposal facility in Texas and 319,002 gallons were disposed of at a licensed solid waste disposal facility in Michigan. Both disposals took place prior to the U.S. EPA’s one-day pause, DeWine’s office said. Another approximately 94,372 gallons were disposed of at a licensed solid waste disposal facility in Vickery, Ohio, which took place both before and after the pause. More contaminated liquid will be collected as the cleanup process progresses, according to the governor’s office.

DeWine’s office said the U.S. EPA has conducted indoor air testing at a total of 578 homes in East Palestine and no contaminants associated with the Feb. 3 derailment have been detected. Meanwhile, outdoor air monitoring remains ongoing with 15 air monitors in the area, which similarly have not yet detected any contaminants associated with the incident.

The Ohio EPA will continue to test East Palestine’s municipal water supply once a week “out of an abundance of caution” to ensure it is safe to drink, according to the governor’s office. While the majority of homes in the area get drinking water from the municipal supply, some get theirs from private wells. To date, the Columbiana County General Health District has tested 126 private wells in the East Palestine area and results have been returned for 19 of those wells, none of which showed evidence of contaminants linked to the Feb. 3 derailment, DeWine’s office said.

The governor’s office said 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.

DeWine’s office said the process of “sediment washing” has begun in both Sulphur Run and Leslie Run, two creeks that flow through downtown East Palestine and near the derailment site. A private contractor has finished the first round and was expected to start the second round on Monday, according to DeWine’s office, which noted that “additional rounds of sediment washing may take place in the future.”

“Much of the contamination remaining in these waterways is attached to the sediment in the creek beds, which is why contaminants can be seen rising to the surface of the water when the ground beneath the water is disturbed,” DeWine’s office said. “The process involves disturbing the sediment to release the contaminants to the surface of the water, and the contaminants are then removed from the water by vacuum trucks.”

Meanwhile, final necropsy results for four wild animals found dead in the East Palestine area showed “no findings to support chemical toxicity as a cause of death,” according to DeWine’s office.

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