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Ohio train derailment released more toxic chemicals than first reported

Norfolk Southern tells EPA vinyl chloride wasn’t the only chemical leaked from rail cars in Ohio

The derailment site captured in an aerial photo on Feb. 5. (Photo: NTSB)

The Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in Ohio released more toxic chemicals than first reported, according to a report NS provided to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The NS (NYSE: NSC) train was traveling in East Palestine, Ohio, near the border with Pennsylvania when the accident occurred. The derailment involved 11 rail cars carrying hazardous materials, with five of those hazmat cars carrying vinyl chloride, a toxic chemical and flammable liquid, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. NS successfully vented and burned the vinyl chloride from those tank cars in a controlled procedure days after the derailment. 

But other chemicals have been released into the air or the ground, and NS is still determining how much was released. According to the report provided by NS on Sunday, a tank car carrying stabilized butyl acrylate, a highly flammable liquid used for making paints, sealants and adhesive, had its head branched and its contents spilled or burned in the derailment fire. A tank car carrying ethylhexyl acrylate, a combustible liquid that is used to make paint and plastics, had its head breached, but the amount of product that remained in the car is still pending. And a tank car carrying ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, a flammable liquid that is used in consumer products such as spot removers, cosmetics and paints and with vapors that can irritate the skin and eyes, is of unknown status. 

Read More: Wall Street says Norfolk Southern profits won’t suffer from derailment 

The EPA noted that it is utilizing air monitoring devices used for indoor air screening as part of a voluntary home screening effort and that these devices can detect vinyl chloride and other chemicals of concern from the derailment. In a Monday update, the EPA said community air monitoring will continue to operate 24 hours a day with 291 homes screened as of Sunday evening and no detections of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride identified. Another 181 homes still need screening, according to the EPA.

The EPA also said it will hold NS accountable for cleanup costs at the site. 

NS said last week that it is working with the EPA, NTSB and other agencies in investigating the cause of the derailment. In a preliminary observation, NTSB said an overheated bearing could have contributed to the accident.

NTSB confirmed Tuesday additional details about the incident: The derailment of the general merchandise freight train 32N occurred at approximately 8:54 p.m. EST Feb. 3 on mainline track 1. Thirty-eight rail cars derailed and an ensuing fire damaged an additional 12 cars. Of the 20 total rail cars carrying hazardous materials, 11 derailed. 

NTSB said it expects to publish a preliminary report in two weeks on the incident. The agency has obtained locomotive event recorder data, forward- and inward-facing image recording data  and wayside defect detector data, and investigators are continuing to perform interviews.

NTSB’s investigation aims to determine the probable cause of the derailment and issue safety recommendations should they be needed in order to prevent future derailments. 

“NTSB investigators have identified and examined the rail car that initiated the derailment. Surveillance video from a residence showed what appears to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment,” a Tuesday news release said. “The wheelset from the suspected railcar has been collected as evidence for metallurgical examination. The suspected overheated wheel bearing has been collected and will be examined by engineers from the NTSB Materials Laboratory in Washington, D.C.

“The tank cars are currently being decontaminated. Once the process is complete, NTSB investigators will return to Ohio to complete a thorough examination of the tank cars.”

Parties providing technical assistance to NTSB’s investigation include the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and Federal Railroad Administration, Ohio State Highway Patrol, the village of East Palestine, NS, Trinity Industries Leasing (NYSE: TRN), GATX (NYSE: GATX), Brotherhood of Railway Carmen, International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers and Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern train on Feb. 6, 2023. (Photo: Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)

NS restores operations

The two mainlines affected by the derailment have had service restored now that the tracks have been cleared, and NS is working to improve network fluidity, according to a Monday operational update from the company.

“Both mainlines were restored to service on February 7 — after our Engineering team and contractors worked to quickly clear the site and laydown new infrastructure,” NS said in the update. “Norfolk Southern continues to make progress in two key areas: addressing the backlog of traffic; and getting power and crews back in cycle. As we continue to do so, customers will see a positive reflection of these efforts in the status of their shipments.”

NS said it was continuing to work with local, state and federal agencies as well as the local community. The derailment led to an evacuation of area residents in Ohio and Pennsylvania that has since been lifted, according to local news reports

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  1. Jeff

    I think I would go with the reports of dead pets, chickens and other livestock from local residents and farmers rather than the EPA’s air monitoring devices, in determining whether air contamination levels are ‘safe’.

  2. Dennis

    I have questions about the Norfolk Southerns preventative maintenance program. How often do they check the rail car axles and lubricate the wheel bearings? Are they cutting costs? How is it that the hot box detectors didn’t pick up a problem along the way? NS must answer these questions

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.