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The NTSB holds its final meeting on the 2023 Ohio train derailment

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The National Transportation Safety Board has been discussing what went wrong when a freight train derailed last year in East Palestine, Ohio. The crash released toxic chemicals along that part of the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. At the NTSB's final meeting about this today, the agency presented the findings of its investigation and recommendations on improving rail safety. The Allegheny Front's Julie Grant has been following this story. Hey, Julie.

JULIE GRANT, BYLINE: Hi, there.

SHAPIRO: This derailment was such a huge news story when it happened. Can you take us through some of the most memorable moments, as people were discussing explosions, contamination? What went down?

GRANT: Yeah. Well, it was early February. Thirty-eight cars derailed. Some were carrying hazardous materials. So there were fires, and some 2,000 people were evacuated. Norfolk Southern, the rail company, was concerned that one of five cars that was carrying vinyl chloride - that's a carcinogenic chemical - could explode, so Ohio's governor and the East Palestine fire chief approved the rail company's plan to vent it from the cars and burn it. But then that operation led to an explosion and a huge chemical plume that spread contamination throughout this community.

SHAPIRO: And what happened at this final NTSB meeting on the matter today?

GRANT: Yeah, well, during the hearing today, the chair, Jennifer Homendy, announced that they would discuss four things, including how to communicate about hazardous materials and emergency response, what led to the vent-and-burn decision and about the equipment. So a lot of the discussion has been very technical.

For example, the NTSB found that one of the wheel bearings reached incredibly high temperatures, and the detectors along the tracks were spaced too far apart to catch the problem. NTSB investigators said if those detectors are 15 miles apart or less, that improves safety. The rail industry did recently adopt new standards, calling for an average spacing of 15 miles, but that did not please NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy, who said an average is too lenient.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENNIFER HOMENDY: Yeah. Would that have done anything for this one to prevent it?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: No, ma'am.

HOMENDY: Not a single thing. They're adopting the exact same thing that occurred here.

GRANT: So the NTSB is recommending that those detectors be spaced no more than 15 miles apart along the tracks.

SHAPIRO: Is the NTSB recommending any other equipment changes as a result of this accident?

GRANT: Yeah, NTSB focused on a certain type of tank car, one called the DOT-111, which it says has been a known safety concern for over 30 years. According to the NTSB, when these cars were in accidents, more than half released their contents. And while no one was killed in the East Palestine derailment, it has been involved in deaths in other places. NTSB's board member, Michael Graham, spoke about the more than 25,000 of these tank cars that are still in use.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL GRAHAM: If DOT-111 cars continue to carry hazardous materials, we will see more derailments and the release of hazardous materials in communities.

GRANT: So the NTSB is recommending a phase-out of those and similar tank cars.

SHAPIRO: People in the community were so concerned about the decision to vent and burn toxic chemicals. Has that come up at this last meeting?

GRANT: Yeah, and that's been very interesting. The discussion has been about whether that operation was even necessary. A couple of days after the derailment, Norfolk Southern was concerned that one of the five tank cars containing vinyl chloride was undergoing a chemical process and that it could explode. So the company advised the commander in charge to very quickly approve the vent and burn. But now, NTSB investigators have found that the vent and burn was not necessary and that Norfolk Southern did not inform decisionmakers that temperatures in that tank car had stabilized.

SHAPIRO: Just in a couple of sentences, what are people in the community saying about this all finally wrapping up?

GRANT: Well, at a meeting last night in East Palestine, people cheered the agency, thankful that the NTSB has held hearings in their town and that they're working to improve rail safety.

SHAPIRO: That is Julie Grant with The Allegheny Front. Thanks a lot for your reporting, Julie.

GRANT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Julie Grant
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