Workers continue to clean up the remaining tank cars Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, in East Palestine, Ohio, after the derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train on Feb. 3.
Matt Freed | AP
Federal authorities on Thursday pointed to an overheated wheel bearing on a Norfolk Southern train that derailed and released toxic chemicals earlier this month in Ohio.
The preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board did not offer an exact cause of the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, but outlined several operational problems.
“Surveillance video from a local residence showed what appeared to be a wheel bearing in the final stages of overheating failure moments before the derailment,” the report said. “The wheel bearing and affected wheels have been collected as evidence and will be examined by the NTSB.”
At a news conference Thursday afternoon, National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy said “the initial fire was caused by a combination of hot axles and plastic pellets.”
Homendy said that roller bearings typically have a final life of between 100,000 and 300,000 miles. Overheating of roller bearings can be caused by fatigue cracks, water damage, mechanical damage, a loose bearing or a wheel defect.
“It is recognized in the rail industry that wheel roller bearings can fail catastrophically in as little as 10 to 15 miles on a train running at track speed,” Homendy said. “You can’t wait for them to fail. The problems need to be thoroughly identified so that something catastrophic like this doesn’t happen again. It was obviously much earlier than 10 to 15 miles, so we’ll look at it.”
Future investigative activity will focus on the wheels and bearings, tank construction and maintenance, derailment damage, inspection procedures and a review of the accident response, the NTSB said.
Around 9:00 p.m. local time on February 3, an eastbound Norfolk Southern freight train derailed, including 11 tank cars carrying hazardous materials, which subsequently caught fire. These chemicals included vinyl chloride, a highly flammable carcinogen. According to the NTSB report, 38 rail cars derailed in the incident.
According to the report, the train was traveling at about 47 miles per hour at the time of the derailment, below the 50 mph limit. At the time of the derailment, the positive train control system was operating to prevent the train from derailing if the speed was exceeded.
After the train passed the track fault detector, it sent an alarm message instructing the crew to stop the train to inspect the hot axle. The Norfolk Southern train was equipped with a hot bearing detection system, designed to detect overheated bearings. These detectors are placed on the ground pointing upwards using infrared technology. The NTSB found no operational problems with track fault detectors or any track faults.
By the time the train was instructed to stop, the bearing temperature had recorded a temperature of 253 degrees above ambient temperatures, above the 200 degree threshold where temperatures are considered critical, according to Norfolk Southern criteria. On the previous detector, he recorded a temperature of 103 degrees above ambient temperatures. The report states that temperatures between 170 and 200 degrees require stopping. Each train company creates its own thresholds, Homendy said, although the NTSB will examine whether the warning thresholds need to be changed.
Homendy said there are federal regulations that state train cars must be cooled for 100 minutes, although the fire lasted for more than 100 minutes. This means that the insulation of the train car prevented the cars from cooling down.
A one-mile evacuation zone was put in place after the derailment, affecting up to 2,000 residents.
Two days after the derailment, temperatures continued to rise in the five derailed tank cars carrying 115,580 gallons of vinyl chloride. Because of the possibility of a catastrophic explosion that could send shrapnel up to a mile away, Norfolk Southern conducted controlled release three days later. The NTSB had no role in the decision or implementation of ventilation and combustion.
No casualties or injuries were reported.
Homendy said the NTSB will hold a rare investigative field hearing in East Palestine in the spring to gather information from witnesses and discuss possible solutions.
“We’ve never seen an accident that couldn’t have been prevented,” Homendy said. “I don’t like the word accident, I don’t like to use it. Nothing is an accident.”
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw he told CNBC in an interview that aired Tuesday believes it is safe for the families to return to East Palestine. Officials said air levels are safe and the city’s water is free of harmful levels of contaminants.
“We are now focused on environmental remediation, cleaning up this site, continuous air monitoring, water monitoring, financial assistance to the residents of this community and investment in this community so that the community in East Palestine can thrive,” Shaw said.
However, residents continue to express skepticism. Ohio opened a health clinic Tuesday to address increasing reports of headaches, nausea and rashes in the community, and some residents have dead chickens and fish reported near the place. A number of residents who fled their homes sued Norfolk Southern.
On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered by Norfolk Southern manage and pay for all cleaning efforts.
Shaw told CNBC that Norfolk Southern has reimbursed or donated $6.5 million to East Palestine and will continue to provide financial assistance to residents.
The city became a political flashpoint after former Republican President Donald Trump visited on Wednesday to meet with first responders and local elected officials. Trump, who won Ohio in 2016 and 2020, suggested the Biden administration had shown “indifference and betrayal” in its response to the crisis — in addition to promoting its brand of water.
Trump on Wednesday failed to mention that his administration in 2018 repealed the 2015 Obama-era rule requiring advanced braking technology in trains carrying hazardous or flammable materials.
Thursday’s news comes on the same day as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited the website. Buttigieg sent a letter Sunday to Norfolk Southern, warning that the company must “demonstrate unequivocal support for the people” of eastern Palestine.
Buttigieg drew criticism from Republican politicians for his response to the crisis. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., called on Buttigieg to resign or be fired for a “gross level of incompetence and apathy.” Buttigieg recognized va CBS News interview Tuesday that he “could have spoken earlier about how strongly I felt about this incident.”
At a press conference, Homendy said the investigation was “not about politics” and that the goal was to make fact-based safety recommendations.
“This is a community that has been devastated,” she said. “They deserve to know what happened, how to prevent it from happening again. They deserve to have the right solutions.”