A preliminary report cites an overheated wheel bearing as the cause of a train derailment and fire involving vinyl chloride monomer in East Palestine, Ohio.
The Feb. 23 report from the National Transportation Safety Board said the wheel bearing was 253° F over the ambient temperature before the derailment. A detection system alerted the train's three-person crew to the overheating, according to the report.
The Norfolk Southern Corp. train engineer then slowed the train. During the deceleration, an automatic emergency brake brought the train to a stop. The train was traveling at 47 mph at the time of the derailment, 3 mph below the speed limit for that type of train.
In a response to the report, officials with Norfolk Southern in Atlanta said the report showed the rail crew operated the train within the company's rules and that wayside heat detectors were operating as designed.
"We and the rail industry need to learn as much as we can from this event," officials said. "Norfolk Southern will develop practices and invest in technologies that could help prevent an incident like this in the future."
The derailment happened the night of Feb. 3. Almost 40 rail cars derailed, including five that contained VCM, which is a feedstock for PVC resin. No injuries were reported from the derailment.
Rising temperatures in one of the VCM cars led officials from both Ohio and Pennsylvania — very close to the derailment site — and the railroad on Feb. 6 to drain all five cars and burn off the VCM, resulting in thick black smoke and a chemical odor throughout the area. Officials said that decision was made because of the possibility of an explosion that could have sent shrapnel up to a mile away.
Government and railroad officials have said the air and water have tested safe in most of the area, but local residents — some of whom had been evacuated for three days — remain concerned about their health and the impact of the burnoff.
Recent updates from local agencies include:
• The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency said there's no indication of risk to East Palestine Public Water customers. Treated drinking water shows no detection of contaminants associated with the derailment. They added that the data does not apply to private wells, which should be tested.
Ohio EPA also said that its staff is doing its own testing, while a contractor is doing separate tests. Previous media reports implied that all testing was being done by outside contractors.
• NS has contributed almost $6 million to relief efforts in the area and helped more than 2,500 families, according to the company website.
• The Ohio Emergency Management Agency said removal of contaminated soil from the site began Feb. 23. Under Ohio EPA direction, NS brought in dump trucks to move contaminated soil to a hazardous waste disposal facility in Michigan. Almost 5,000 cubic yards of soil have been excavated from the ground.
• More than 1.7 million gallons of contaminated liquid have been removed from the site. Of that amount, more than 1.1 million gallons have been hauled off-site, mostly to a hazardous waste disposal facility in Texas, with a smaller amount going to Vickery Environmental in Vickery, Ohio.
• The Ohio Department of Natural Resources on Feb. 23 gave an estimate on wildlife impacted by the derailment and burnoff. The agency estimated that more than 38,000 minnows were killed in local waterways, along with more than 5,000 small fish, crayfish and amphibians. Officials added that "there is no immediate threat" to wildlife in the area.
• The U.S. EPA has conducted indoor air testing at 562 homes in the area. Officials said that no contaminants associated with the derailment were detected.
A list posted online by U.S. EPA of hazardous materials carried by the train showed the five VCM cars, as well as four cars of PVC resin and two cars each of polyethylene and polypropylene resins. Two of the PVC cars were listed as "involved in fire," while one of the cars had burned and the other was still burning, according to the list.
The two cars of PP resin were not involved in the derailment. The status of the two cars of PE resin was unclear. Two additional cars contained benzene, a chemical used in production of styrene monomer and other plastics feedstocks. The list said the two benzene cars were damaged by fire but were not breached.
In a Feb. 23 statement, American Chemistry Council President and CEO Chris Jahn addressed the derailment.
"People are understandably concerned and question why we ship chemicals, including those that are classified as hazardous materials," he said. "We ship them because they are needed across the country and essential to everyday life.
"Chemicals are critical to providing safe drinking water, ensuring a plentiful food supply, producing life-saving medicines and medical equipment, and generating many types of energy," he said. "The safe transportation of chemicals is a responsibility shared between chemical manufacturers, our transportation partners and the government.
"The transportation of chemicals requires a full range of safety measures to help prevent derailments, reduce the risk of a material release and mitigate the impacts of an accident," Jahn added. "Experience has shown that advancing safety requires us to apply the lessons learned from accident investigations and rely on scientific data to determine what safety measures will deliver the greatest benefit."
East Palestine has a population of about 5,000. It is located 15 miles south of Youngstown and about 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.