NTSB release final report on East Palestine train derailment cause

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — The East Palestine train derailment could have been prevented if trackside detectors had accurately detected a burning wheel bearing 20 miles earlier, the National Transportation Security Board said.

PHOTOS: Massive explosion at start of controlled release of chemicals at train derailment

A Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous material derailed in East Palestine, Ohio on Feb. 3, 2023. A few days later, a massive explosion during a controlled release of the chemicals inside the train sent heavy black smoke pluming into the air over the small town. The derailment resulted in home displacements, constant testing and health concerns from people who lived in and around the community.

>> LATEST: Some residents return to East Palestine after train derailment, others hesitant to go back

On June 25, the NTSB hosted a meeting to release its final report on the cause of the derailment and its fiery aftermath. NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy opened with an apology to the East Palestine community on behalf of the organization, stating, “The absence of a fatality or injury does not mean the presence of safety.”

>> East Palestine Train Derailment: Exclusive sit down with Norfolk Southern CEO nearly 1 year later

The derailment was likely caused by a wheel bearing that overheated to a dangerous degree. A wheel bearing on the 23rd car from the front of the train overheated to around 250 degrees by the time it reached East Palestine from Madison, Ill., officials said.

Officials also said that after the derailment, the defective wheel bearing was found to be destroyed and investigators found that around 25% of the cars had federally defective conditions.

>> Norfolk Southern agrees to $600M settlement over East Palestine derailment

Bearing detectors along the route caught the temperature at 103 degrees in Salem, Ohio and sent a non-critical alert to the Wayside Help Desk, but not to the crew. The crew received a critical alarm in East Palestine when the detector recorded a bearing at 253 degrees.

The Association of American Railroads defines an overheated bearing as 170 if detected by a wayside detector.

>> Norfolk Southern gives access to remediation site ahead of 1-year mark of derailment

NTSB officials said the Salem bearing detector did not record the true temperature of the overheated bearing, as internal temperatures likely exceed what is measured.

Train derailments in New Castle and Virginia, both of which happened after the one in East Palestine, likely had similar causes, officials said.

The NTSB said wayside bearing detectors should be subject to regulatory requirements for installation, inspection and maintenance. Officials also recommend research be conducted on the effectiveness of the current detection systems and made available to the public.

>> Details of hazardous cargo must be provided by railroad immediately after derailment, new rule says

NTSB officials also investigated the cause of the fire immediately stemming from the derailment, which was likely caused by a punctured DOT-111 tank car carrying butyl acrylates, a flammable hazardous material.

>> No evidence of contamination found in western Pa. from East Palestine train derailment, DEP says

The cars are susceptible to breaching damage and fire exposure from burning, released plating caused the pressure relief devices to actuate on impact. This caused Norfolk Southern officials and contractors to raise concerns about vinyl chloride, which led to the controlled burn and explosion of the chemicals, which NTSB officials said could have been avoided if the DOT-111 tank cars were not used to carry combustible or flammable liquids.

>> Controlled burn, explosion weren’t necessary after East Palestine train derailment, NTSB chair says

The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act states that the DOT-111 tank cars would be phased out and no longer be authorized to carry flammable liquids by 2029.

With the East Palestine train derailment, there have been calls for that date to be moved up. Officials are seeking legislative authority for the phase-out to be accelerated.

The Association of American Railroads said many of the NTSB’s findings align with positions the industry has long maintained, such as phasing out the DOT-111 cars.

“NTSB investigators have spent over a year analyzing the derailment’s causes to inform recommendations aimed at preventing similar accidents,” said Michael Rush, senior vice president of AAR safety and operations. “Railroads implemented substantial, industry-wide improvements in response to the NTSB’s initial findings. With the final report, railroads will carefully evaluate key learnings and determine next steps to meaningfully advance safety.”

Following today’s hearing, railroads are reviewing the complete findings and recommendations to identify the potential need for additional research surrounding bearing performance or other joint industry efforts, the AAR said. The organization also said properly training first responders to respond safely in the event of an incident and access the information they need should an incident occur are top priorities for the rail industry.

Click here to view Norfolk Southern’s full statement.

Download the FREE WPXI News app for breaking news alerts.

Follow Channel 11 News on Facebook and Twitter. | Watch WPXI NOW

Comments on this article