Yves here. Norfolk Southern got a luck break when the Silvergate liquidation and Silicon Valley Bank shuttering ate the business section headline, so its lame performance before Congress went largely unnoticed. This article helps to address to lapse. Importantly, it presents testimony that contracts the Norfolk Southern pretext for burning five railcars of toxic chemicals: that they were heating and at risk of explosion. Most observers didn’t buy that and recognized the more likely reason was the railroad’s eagerness to get rail service back on track.
Indeed, it appears that at most only one of the rail cars was getting hot.
However, this otherwise useful article latches onto the notion, thoroughly debunked by Lambert, that failure to implement brake regulation was a big cause of the crash. In fact, it was precision scheduled railroading…whose effects rail workers sought to have addressed in the 2022 strike threat. The Biden Administration quashed those demands.
By Justin Mikulka, a research fellow at New Consensus. Originally published at DeSmogBlog
An aerial view of the Norfolk Southern freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio captured on February 5, 2023. Credit: National Transportation Safety Board, public domain
On March 9, the Senate held the first congressional hearing on rail safety following the February 3 Norfolk Southern rail disaster in which a nearly two-mile-long train carrying hazardous materials derailed and caught fire in East Palestine, Ohio. If the people of East Palestine were hoping to see the wheels of justice start to turn in their favor with this hearing, they may be sorely disappointed. The hearing began with some troubling revelations from a first responder, before senators went on to grill Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw, who dodged questions and refused to commit to any meaningful changes to his company’s safety strategy.
It likely wasn’t a pleasant experience for Shaw, especially when Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) informed him mid-hearing that another of Norfolk Southern’s trains had just derailed. However, even this painful irony could not nudge Shaw toward specific commitments to financially support East Palestine residents or to back new rail safety regulations.
Some of the worst fears over public and environmental health in the East Palestine disaster, which is unfolding in a region long-plagued by industrial pollution, centers on vinyl chloride, a colorless gas associated with various cancers and used to make plastics. The derailed Norfolk Southern train was carrying five rail tank cars of this chemical, and worried about a potential explosion, the emergency response performed a controlled burn of those five rail cars. This controlled burn created a massive cloud of toxic smoke that hung over the region for hours due to a weather phenomenon that held it low in the atmosphere.
A smoke plume rises into the sky over East Palestine during the February 6, 2023 controlled burn of rail cars holding vinyl chloride at the Norfolk Southern derailment site. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was monitoring air quality. Credit: EPA, public domain
On February 6, Norfolk Southern said this controlled burn was necessary because the temperature in one of the tanks was rising and there was risk of an explosion that likely would have sent shrapnel flying in a mile radius and exposed the town to the vinyl chloride. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine corroborated this report, saying he was given “two bad options” for the outcome in East Palestine.
However, shortly after the accident, Sil Caggiano, a hazardous materials specialist and former Battalion Chief with the Youngstown, Ohio fire department, told WKBN that, “We basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open.”
Eric J. Brewer, Director of Emergency Services for Beaver County, Pennsylvania, was one of the first responders on the scene in East Palestine and testified at the Congressional hearing. During questioning, he described learning of the decision to switch from a controlled burn of the one vinyl chloride car that was heating up to all five cars as “jaw-dropping.” He was not involved in this decision, according to his testimony.
Brewer also noted how the emergency response changed once Norfolk Southern management showed up. “The boots-on-the-ground crews were great to work with,” Brewer said. “It seems as bosses or management get there, that’s where the communication failures start.”
In Brewer’s opening statement, he explained that Norfolk Southern pushed the decision to burn all five tanks holding vinyl chloride and made this change in strategy outside of the coordination process involving first responders:
“We learned that Norfolk Southern wanted to do a controlled detonation of the tank car in question. We were assured this was the safest way to take care of the railcar that was causing the problem. This was to occur around the noon time frame on Monday. When we were in one of the planning meetings we learned from Norfolk Southern officials that they now wanted to do the controlled detonation on five of the tank cars rather than just the one that everyone was thinking. This changed the entire plan because it was going to be a bigger impact to the area. This confusion was because Norfolk Southern officials did not communicate and were not in the room when the planning process was happening.”
If only one tank car was heating up, why were all five intentionally burned? This decision potentially released up to five times more toxic contamination into the surrounding air. On March 2, Shaw explained to the Associated Press why responders ultimately burned all five rail cars.
“The factors on the ground at that time were that the safety valves on the rail cars had failed and the temperatures inside the railcars were heating up,” Shaw told the AP.
However, the Norfolk Southern CEO’s explanation stands in contrast to the claim that only one car was experiencing a temperature rise, which is what Brewer explained under oath at the March 9 Senate hearing and what the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) initially concluded in a preliminary report published on February 23. According to that NTSB report, “five derailed DOT-105 specification tank cars (railcars 28–31 and 55) carrying 115,580 gallons of vinyl chloride continued to concern authorities because the temperature inside one tank car was still rising.”
Since that time, the NTSB has said that three of the five pressure relief devices on the rail tank cars may have been compromised when their aluminum covers melted in the fire that resulted from the derailment, but offered no definitive evidence that this had affected the release valves’ performance. The agency will be investigating further. The other two cars’ valves had steel covers, which don’t melt in fires. The main purpose of these pressure relief devices is to release pressure inside tank cars due to fire. Currently, there are no regulations requiring the rail industry to have steel covers on these devices. That’s not surprising because the rail industry resists regulationwhenever possible and is very successful at rolling back or weakening even the few safety rules that its regulators have enacted.
At least one senator appeared skeptical of the decision to burn all five tanks of vinyl chloride. “Someone may need to be held responsible who made the decision to burn this off, because some of this, a lot of this could have been prevented,” said Senator Markwayne Mullin (R-OK).
The people of East Palestine and the broader region will be dealing with the consequences of that decision for a long time. Meanwhile, the tracks damaged by the derailment are back in place, and trains were traveling through East Palestine on February 10, just a week after the accident darkened the skies of the Ohio River Valley.
Norfolk CEO Refuses to Support New Proposed Rail Safety Regulations
In response to the East Palestine disaster, on February 21 the Biden administration announced plans for “pursuing further rulemaking, to the extent possible under current statute, on high-hazard flammable trains (HHFT) and electronically controlled pneumatic brakes (ECP).” As DeSmog has explained, the addition of electronically controlled pneumatic brakes is likely the most important and immediate measure that would significantly improve rail safety.
In 2015, the Obama Department of Transportation issued regulations requiring modern ECP brakes for trains carrying hazardous materials, but just two years later, the agency, then under President Trump, repealed them.
In the March 9 hearing, Senator Whitehouse noted that Norfolk Southern was on the record saying that the 2015 safety regulations were “not in the public interest.” Whitehouse told Shaw that he wasn’t looking for any further comment from the CEO on ECP brakes at this time but formally requested from him, “All communications between your company and trade association with the Trump administration relevant to that repeal.” If those communications become public, they could provide new insight into the rail industry’s ongoing attempts to fight safety regulations that could protect the public.
The senators at the hearing also took aim at Norfolk Southern’s corporate financial priorities. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) asked Shaw if he would “commit to no more stock buybacks until you invest in safety.” In his comments, Merkley noted that in 2016 a Union Pacific oil train had derailed and exploded in a near-miss not far from a school in Mosier, Oregon. He went on to express confidence that “if we can put people on the moon, we can put brakes on every train car.”
“I hope you support the coordinated electronically controlled system you’ve been fighting against for years,” the Oregon senator finished to Shaw.
In response, the Norfolk Southern CEO did not commit to any concrete actions, such as halting stock buybacks. Instead, Shaw said only, “We are committed to the legislative intent to make rail safer.”
During the hearing, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) made the important point, also reached by the NTSB, that this accident was “preventable” and “a disaster waiting to happen.” He attributed the cause to “corporate greed” and called “outdated railway safety regulations” fuel for “the toxic fire that was ready to combust.”
In closing his comments, Senator Markey asked Shaw if he would make the residents and business owners of East Palestine financially whole. The rail CEO responded with a variation of a phrase he used at least five times in the hearing: “Senator, I’m committed to do what’s right.” Markey replied emphatically that making the residents financially whole was “the right thing to do!”