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Here’s what we know about the Ohio train derailment

“We basically nuked a town.”

That was the assessment of hazardous materials expert Sil Caggiano in the aftermath of the horrific derailment of a Norfolk Southern freight train in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3.

The train was carrying several cars of vinyl chloride and other toxic chemicals en route from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania, before 38 of its 141 cars derailed at around 9 p.m. local time. Eleven of the derailed cars contained hazardous materials, per the National Transportation and Safety Board.

In the wake of the crash, crews conducted controlled burns of the dangerous substances to reduce the risk of an explosion, sending plumes of toxic black smoke into the air and forcing an evacuation of the town’s 3,000 residents.

A massive cloud of black smoke rises over East Palestine after crews conducted controlled burns of vinyl chloride. (Image: RJ Bobin, Shutterstock)

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine lifted the evacuation order on Sunday, and people have started to return to the town. But despite the continued reassurances of health officials, residents continue to report headaches, rashes, unusual smells and dying animals.

The derailment is one of the worst rail disasters in freight history.

So far, the incident has left far more questions than answers: How did this happen? Could it have been prevented? What is the fate of the people of East Palestine? Will Norfolk Southern face any repercussions?

Here’s what we know:

How did this happen?

The NTSB says it is continuing to investigate the cause of the derailment. But the agency did offer a clue.

Early indicators point to an overheated wheel bearing on the car that initiated the crash as the primary cause. Footage from a resident of New Waterford, Ohio — about five miles west of East Palestine — shows one of the train’s wheels sparking as it passes by. The NTSB has confirmed that the video is authentic.

Additional footage taken from a security camera in Salem, Ohio, shows that the train may have been on fire for as many as 20 miles before derailing.

The NTSB said that before the derailment, an alarm indicating a mechanical issue was set off, causing the train to apply its emergency brakes. The agency currently has the suspected faulty wheel bearing in evidence and has begun examining it.

The NTSB has yet to make an official determination. It added that a preliminary report would be issued within two weeks from Wednesday.

Could this have been prevented?

Though some mechanical failures are inevitable, rail unions in recent years have criticized Class I operators like Norfolk Southern for adopting practices that make them more common.

The push was most evident in the lead-up to a potential rail strike last fall, which was prevented when the Biden administration signed a bill forcing unions to accept contracts they considered unfavorable.

A key tenet of the unions’ criticism involved precision scheduled railroading, a practice that calls for consolidated shipping within tight, scheduled windows. Operators say the model boosts financial and operational efficiency.

But workers have said there are glaring flaws with PSR. For one, they say, it often necessitates longer and heavier trains that are more prone to derailments. It also sacrifices certain safety measures for speed, like blocking, which is when heavier cars are moved to the front of the train for smoother braking.

A bird’s eye view of the aftermath of the derailment in East Palestine. (Image: NTSB)

Unions are also frustrated with their working conditions. Since 2016, Class I railroad employment is down 29%, meaning fewer workers are being assigned to larger, heavier trains. And those who remain continue to speak out about limited paid time off for sick leave and other reasons.

One group, Railroad Workers United, directly blamed both PSR and a depleted workforce for the East Palestine disaster. The derailed train, 32N, was nearly 2 miles long, weighed 18,000 tons and had a crew of three people — and according to RWU, it wasn’t properly blocked.

“Forty percent of the weight of [Norfolk Southern] 32N was grouped at the rear third of the train, which has always been bad practice and made more dangerous with longer, heavier trains,” the group posted on its website. “This fact almost certainly made the wreck dynamically worse. But increasingly, the PSR-driven carriers, driven to cut costs and crew time by any means necessary, cut corners and leave crews and the public at risk.”

Norfolk Southern workers say they knew of repeated issues with 32N before the crash. They even have a nickname for it: 32 Nasty.

Norfolk Southern has said such a characterization is inaccurate, given that the train’s cargo changes from day to day. But others who are familiar with the train say the moniker is fitting.

“I’ve talked to crews in other areas who know of this train,” Clyde Whitaker, the Ohio state legislative board director for rail union SMART Transportation, told Vice. “It’s a notorious train.”

Watch: Norfolk Southern train derailment examined

According to a pair of unnamed Norfolk Southern workers, 32N experienced multiple red flags that went undetected before derailing. The workers claim the train is widely known for being difficult to run due to the decisions management makes about how cargo is arranged.

It’s still unclear whether those decisions contributed to the Feb. 3 derailment. But according to the two Norfolk Southern workers who spoke to Vice, heavy cargo was positioned at the rear of the train, which would have made it more difficult to slow down.

What is the fate of the people of East Palestine?

Perhaps the largest question surrounding 32N’s derailment is the well-being of the people in the surrounding area.

As of Wednesday evening, the Environmental Protection Agency had screened the air inside 486 homes, finding no trace of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride. It told those residents that they could return safely, but warned those who hadn’t yet been screened to stay away.

The agency has also found the town’s municipal water supply to be safe to drink and has tested the water quality of 28 private wells. Gov. DeWine backed up the assessment, stating that the town’s municipal water is safe to consume. However, he and the EPA did note that certain waterways near the crash site remain contaminated.

And on Tuesday, state officials advised residents to drink bottled water, particularly those who had not had their private wells screened.

“We know that there is a lack of trust,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan told reporters on Thursday. “If we say that the water is safe and the air is safe, we believe it, because we’ve tested it and the data shows it.”

NTSB crews use drones to inspect the disaster from the air. (Video: NTSB)

Despite repeated reassurances, residents have reported unusual symptoms, like a burning sensation in the mouth, lips and tongue, that they attribute to the chemical spill. Reports of thousands of dead fish and other animals have also been common.

However, a spokesman for DeWine said Thursday that no doctors who have seen these patients have attributed their symptoms to the derailment and its aftermath.

“There’s usually another explanation for those symptoms,” Dan Tierney, the spokesperson, told The Washington Post.

Tierney also said that while federal agencies like the NTSB and the EPA are assisting with the investigation and cleanup, the nature of the disaster makes the town ineligible for support from FEMA — and bars DeWine from making an emergency declaration.

As things stand, East Palestinians remain fearful of the near-term health effects on themselves, their pets and their livestock. But even more concerning is the long-term impact. Medical professionals have warned that chemicals like vinyl chloride can cause cancer and other health problems years later.

However, the issue runs even deeper. The controlled burn of the chemicals contaminated the soil in the surrounding area, which is home to hundreds of farmers. The long-term impact on these agricultural businesses remains unclear. But with investigators continuing to remove contaminated soil, they’re currently shuttered.

A plume of toxic black smoke rises just a few hundred feet from homes in East Palestine, Ohio. (Image: RJ Bobin, Shutterstock)

Residents also worry that if their businesses do go under, they won’t be able to leave the town because of deflated property values.

“Am I going to be able to sell [my property]?” asked Aaron Bragg, who lives in nearby New Waterford and owns a rental cottage in East Palestine. “No. Norfolk Southern needs to just level this whole area.”

What will happen to Norfolk Southern?

People affected by the derailment have directed their ire toward Norfolk Southern, which the EPA has vowed to hold responsible for the disaster. 

The company so far has covered evacuation costs, supplied bottled water, aided in cleanup efforts and set up a $1 million relief fund. Alan H. Shaw, its CEO, on Thursday pledged to continue to help the community recover.

“I know there are still a lot of questions without answers. I know you’re tired. I know you’re worried. We will not let you down,” he wrote.

Residents, though, are skeptical of the company’s commitments. On Wednesday, Norfolk Southern representatives backed out of a town hall during which community members thought they would be able to ask questions of the rail giant. The company cited safety concerns “stemming from the increasing likelihood of the participation of outside parties.”

The decision didn’t go over well with residents.

The rail company also faces a slew of class-action lawsuits from people in the region. They say Norfolk Southern was not only negligent in the lead-up to the crash but also in the aftermath, claiming that the controlled burn of vinyl chloride could have been avoided had the integrity of the train’s cars been up to snuff.

“Norfolk Southern discharged more cancer-causing Vinyl Chloride into the environment in the course of a week than all industrial emitters combined did in the course of a year,” one suit alleged.

Another angle of the derailment of Norfolk Southern 32N, captured via unmanned aerial systems. (Image: NTSB)

As those cases continue, Norfolk Southern may face some repercussions from federal regulators, but they likely won’t be severe, some say.

Analysts anticipate the firm will pay between $40 million and $50 million in a “casualty charge,” which would represent about 1.7% of its 2022 profits. The outcome would resemble that of another Norfolk Southern derailment in 2005, which killed nine people and resulted in more than 550 hospital admissions. The rail giant incurred just $35 million in expenses that quarter.

Another question is whether the firm will face repercussions from a regulatory standpoint. 

Thus far, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Biden White House have sided against the safety concerns of unions, allowing rail operators to continue employing PSR and limiting workers’ time off. Could the severity of the East Palestine disaster serve as an inflection point to spur changes to Class I safety regulations? Possibly, but precedent would point to the contrary.

It’s one of many questions that remain in the aftermath of the Feb. 3 disaster. 

If you were impacted by the Norfolk Southern derailment, or if you work for Norfolk Southern or another Class I railroad, we want to hear from you. Reach out to [email protected].

Click for more FreightWaves articles by Jack Daleo.

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