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The Ohio toxic train wreck was ‘100% preventable’ — but there’s no evidence the crew did anything wrong, investigators say

Secretary Buttigieg touring the train crash site in East Palestine, OH.
Bonney Kapp Pool
Secretary Buttigieg touring the train crash site in East Palestine, OH.

 (CNN) -- Federal investigators released a spate of new details Thursday about the fiery train derailment that spewed toxic chemicals and wreaked havoc in East Palestine, Ohio.

The initial fire started February 3 when a Norfolk Southern rail car carrying plastic pellets was heated by a hot axle, said Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board.

The temperature of the bearing increased as the train passed two wayside defect detectors -- but it wasn't high enough to trigger an audible alarm message until it passed a third detector, Homendy said.

She said the threshold for those detectors is set by the railroad. Investigators have not identified any track defects nor issues with the wayside defect detectors, Homendy said.

A total of 38 train cars derailed in East Palestine, near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. They included "11 tank cars carrying hazardous materials that subsequently ignited, fueling fires" that damaged a dozen cars that didn't derail, the NTSB said in a preliminary report Thursday.

Five of those derailed train cars were carrying 115,580 gallons of vinyl chloride, according to the report. Vinyl chloride can increase the risk of cancer and is highly flammable.

Those five cars "continued to concern authorities because the temperature inside one tank car was still rising," indicating a polymerization reaction which could result in an explosion, the report said. To help prevent a deadly explosion of vinyl chloride, crews released the toxic chemical into a trench and burned it off three days after the derailment.

The new revelations came after residents who have reported health problems since the toxic train wreck lambasted Norfolk Southern's CEO and after calls for Norfolk Southern to buy the homes of residents who don't feel safe.

Among the other details in the NTSB's initial report:

• While no cause of the derailment has been released, investigators are focusing on one car's wheel set and bearing. Video of the train before the derailment showed what appeared to be an overheated wheel bearing, the report said. Footage showed sparks flying from underneath the train.

• One wheel bearing's temperature reached a "critical" level -- 253 degrees Fahrenheit above the ambient temperature -- and prompted an audible alarm that instructed "the crew to slow and stop the train to inspect a hot axle," the report says.

• The train's engineer applied the train's brakes and additional braking after the alert of an overheating axle, the reports states.

The derailment was "100% preventable," Homendy said. "We call things accidents -- there is no accident. Every single event that we investigate is preventable."

But she said there is no evidence the train's crew "did anything wrong."

The engineer was already braking to slow down behind another train. So when the alarm sounded, he responded "immediately" and increased the brake application, Homendy said.

"During this deceleration, the wheel bearing failed," she said. "Car 23 derailed, and the train initiated an emergency brake application and came to a stop."

Shortly before the NTSB released the new details, members of the agency met with US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg as he toured East Palestine for the first time since the disaster.

Train slowed dramatically before derailment

The train slowed dramatically after the first signs of the potential wheel bearing overheat appeared on surveillance video -- about 21 miles before it derailed, according to a new CNN analysis of surveillance video and Department of Transportation documents.

The train had been traveling at an average speed of 49 miles per hour between Alliance, Ohio, and Salem, Ohio -- but then slowed down to nearly half that speed between Salem and East Palestine.

CNN calculated the train's average speed by using surveillance video time stamps that showed the train's positions at specific points on the track.

The slowdown was well below the "typical speed range" for a train traveling along that stretch of track, according to documents filed in 2020 with the Federal Railroad Administration.

It's unclear what prompted that dramatic slowdown. CNN reached out to Norfolk Southern but did not immediately receive a response.

Norfolk Southern should consider buying worried residents' homes, official says

Ohio officials have repeatedly said air quality and municipal water tests in East Palestine show no dangerous levels of chemicals.

But residents worry about potential health effects, and some have reported bloody noses, burning throats, nausea, headaches and vomiting since the toxic wreck.

Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said Norfolk Southern -- which reported a record-setting operating profit of $4.8 billion last year -- "should consider buying property of people who may not feel safe or would want to relocate as a result of the spill."

Husted told CNN on Thursday that findings from the NTSB investigation "could be the basis for a criminal referral."

Across the border in Pennsylvania -- where some residents were also ordered to evacuate -- the state attorney general's office is already looking into a criminal referral against Norfolk Southern, at the request of state environmental officials.

"Pennsylvanians have a constitutional right to clean air and pure water, and we will not hesitate to hold anyone or any company responsible for environmental crimes in our Commonwealth," the attorney general's office said.

Norfolk Southern spokesperson Katie Byrd declined to comment specifically on the criminal referral.

"I think our actions to work with local, state, and federal leaders from the beginning, support the community, and lead on environmental remediation speak for themselves for the moment," Byrd said in an email to CNN.

'Your company stinks'

East Palestine residents -- including some who have reported health problems since the disaster -- vented their frustration at government officials and Norfolk Southern.

"Your company stinks," resident Jim Stewart told Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw during a CNN town hall Wednesday night.

Stewart, who has lived in East Palestine for more than six decades, said the wreck torched his dreams of retiring soon and selling his house. He said he worries about the home's value now and is afraid to take his dog out because of a strong stench lingering in the air.

The EPA said testing shows the air and municipal water in East Palestine are safe. But some residents aren't convinced.

"I don't feel safe because I don't know what the future holds for my town," lifelong resident Jessica Conard said. "This has the potential to really decimate a small town like us."

Bloody noses, nausea, emergency room visits

Courtney Newman, a mother and teacher in East Palestine, said since her family returned home, her son has had "bloody noses every day," and she has had "skin issues."

Another resident, Josh Hickman, said he is still staying at a hotel as he doesn't feel safe returning home, but he's had to come into the village a few times and experienced symptoms including headaches, dizziness and blood from his nose -- and on Tuesday, sought treatment at the emergency room.

A third resident reported eyes burning, headaches and vomiting since the derailment.

In addition to vinyl chloride, chemicals of concern at the site include phosgene and hydrogen chloride, which are released when vinyl chloride breaks down; butyl acrylate; ethylene glycol monobutyl ether acetate; and 2-ethylhexyl acrylate, according to the EPA. All these chemicals can change when they break down or react with other things in the environment, creating a stew of potential toxins.

"We're getting everything we need, except answers," East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway said Wednesday. "We need answers, as far as the health concerns."

During the town hall, Ohio's governor stressed he did not want to minimize any medical issues potentially linked to the derailment, saying that's the reason he requested medical experts to the community.

Medical teams from the US Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention and the US Department of Health and Human Services will also be on the ground this week at Gov. Mike DeWine's request, he said Friday.

The state opened a health assessment clinic Tuesday for residents who worry their symptoms could be linked to the wreck. The clinic includes nurses, toxicologists and mental health professionals, and can provide residents with referrals if needed, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

What Norfolk Southern is now required to do

Despite repeated questions from frustrated residents, Shaw, the CEO of Norfolk Southern, declined to answer questions regarding the wreck investigation and details about what may have caused the derailment, saying he was "prohibited" from talking about the probe.

"I'm terribly sorry that this has happened to this community," he said. "What I can do, and what I will do, is make it right."

"We're going to get the cleanup right, we're going to reimburse the citizens, we're going to invest in the long term health of this community," Shaw said. "I'm going to see this through, and we're going to be here. And we're going to work with these community leaders to help you thrive."

"We're looking for ideas from the community on where we can help," he added.

Norfolk Southern has been ordered by the EPA to fully clean up the wreck -- or face expensive consequences.

"EPA has special authority for situations just like this where we can compel companies who inflict trauma and cause environmental and health damage to communities, like Norfolk Southern has done, to completely clean up the messed that they've caused and pay for it," administrator Michael Regan said.

According to Regan, Norfolk Southern will be required to:

  • provide a descriptive work plan on how they plan to clean up the water, soil and debris,
  • reimburse the EPA for providing residents a cleaning service of their homes and businesses,
  • show up to public meetings and explain their progress.

"If Norfolk Southern decides that they don't want to follow the order, EPA will step in, so that there's no break in service, perform these duties, while fining the company up to $70,000 a day and then we'll recoup our cost on the back end," Regan said during the town hall. "And the law gives us the authority to charge Norfolk Southern up to three times the amount that the cleanup will cost us."

As cleanup continues, residents remain skeptical

The ongoing cleanup efforts at the derailment site include removing contaminated soil and water from under the railroad tracks.

The contaminated soil became a point of contention last week after a public document sent to the EPA on February 10 did not list soil removal among completed cleanup activities. It is not yet known what significance or impact the soil that was not removed before the railroad reopened on February 8 will have had on the surrounding areas.

DeWine said 4,588 cubic yards of soil and 1.1 million gallons of contaminated water have been removed so far from East Palestine. The railroad tracks will also be taken up so that the soil can be removed, the governor has said.

In a Wednesday update, DeWine reiterated test results showed water coming from East Palestine's municipal system was safe to drink, but said officials will continue testing the water weekly to ensure it remains clean.

Health authorities have also tested water from at least 74 private wells and those results are pending. Residents who get their water from private wells -- which may be closer to the surface than municipal wells -- should continue drinking bottled water until they receive their test results, the governor said.

But some residents remain hesitant to believe what they've been told.

"Since I (got) home from evacuating, I'm still not using the water because I never know if ... they're telling the truth or it's a lie," resident Nene Stewart said during the town hall. "I use bottled water. I can't. I'm not trusting what they're saying. I don't know who's telling the truth."

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