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NTSB warns against misinformation as NS derailment probe continues

Misinformation on social media has prompted the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board to ask the public not to give too much weight to theories about the cause and impacts of the Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in Ohio.

In a series of tweets Thursday, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy urged the public to allow NTSB to conduct its investigation into the incident. If there are safety recommendations that appear urgent, NTSB will call for them before the investigation is completed, she said. 

Homendy called attention to comments about the lack of electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes on the train. She tweeted that a proposed rule calling for ECP brakes that had been withdrawn under the administration of former President Donald Trump would not have applied to this derailment because the rule was for high-hazard trains consisting of 35 or more tank cars carrying a Class 3 flammable liquid, and the NS train was not a high-hazard train. The NS train was a mixed-freight train hauling only three rail cars carrying a Class 3 flammable liquid, she tweeted.

Homendy’s tweets came after Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg tweeted on Tuesday that the DOT is constrained by law on some areas of regulation, such as those related to brakes.

Meanwhile, Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and J.D. Vance of Ohio challenged Buttigieg to address within 30 days traditionally pro-labor questions about the effect that precision scheduled railroading (PSR) may have had on the safety of rail operations. 

Rail unions have been criticizing PSR, a method deployed by the Class I railroads to streamline operations, as an opportunity to lengthen trains and relax safety inspections. SMART-TD, the union representing train conductors, said Thursday that reduced staffing and the increased number of cars per train have made proper inspections more challenging.  

“We request information from the U.S. Department of Transportation regarding its oversight of the United States’ freight train system and, more generally, how it balances building a safe, resilient rail industry across our country in relation to building a hyper-efficient one with minimal direct human input,” the senators said in a Wednesday letter. They also asked Buttigieg to comment on the effects PSR might have had on track infrastructure and rail inspections and whether the DOT should revisit defining what constitutes a high-hazard flammable train. 

Rubio separately in a Thursday letter to President Joe Biden called for the resignation of Buttigieg, saying the secretary’s responses to the Ohio derailment, the potential rail strike last fall, and maritime and surface transportation disruptions in 2021 were insufficient.

“Secretary Buttigieg refused to acknowledge the disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, until his intentional ignorance was no longer tenable. Even after acknowledging the tragedy, he continues to deflect any accountability for the safety of our nation’s rail system. The circumstances leading up to the derailment point to a clear lack of oversight and demand engagement by our nation’s top transportation official,” Rubio said.

While not responding directly to Rubio’s letter, the White House issued a fact sheet Friday that encompasses the response by federal agencies, including DOT, NTSB and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“As President Biden told Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro soon after the derailment, the Federal Government stands ready to provide any additional federal assistance the states may need,” the fact sheet said, adding that a team of medical personnel and toxicologists would be arriving soon to conduct public health testing and assessments and support ongoing relief efforts.

The fact sheet also stressed that NS (NYSE: NSC) would be held accountable for the cleanup and that DOT has several initiatives underway: the proposed rulemaking on train crew size, research to improve the design of rail cars carrying hazardous materials and the development of a proposed rulemaking that would require railroads to provide real-time information on the contents of tank cars for use by emergency response officials and incident investigators.

Meanwhile, Vance also added his signature to a Wednesday letter to EPA Administrator Michael Regan asking EPA to hold NS accountable and to ensure NS’ and state efforts to monitor area water and air quality meet federal EPA guidelines. The letter reiterated concerns by community residents about potentially lingering effects on air quality and the safety of drinking water.

Also signing the letter were fellow Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown and Pennsylvania Sens. Bob Casey Jr. and John Fetterman. All three are Democrats.

According to the NTSB, the derailment of the general merchandise freight train 32N occurred at about 8:54 p.m. EST on Feb. 3 on mainline track 1. Thirty-eight rail cars derailed and the ensuing fire damaged an additional 12 cars. Of the 20 total cars carrying hazardous materials, 11 derailed. Although the cause is still pending, NTSB investigators are looking into whether an overheated wheel bearing may have contributed to the derailment.

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