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After Ohio train derailment, tankers didn’t need to be blown open to release chemicals, NTSB says

The decision to blow up five tanker trucks and burn the toxic chemical inside them after a freight train derailed in eastern Ohio last year was not justified, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board told Congress on Wednesday. But she said key decision makers who feared the tankers would explode three days after the crash never had the information they needed.

The vinyl chloride released that day, combined with all the other chemicals that were released and caught fire after the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, have left residents with lingering fears about potential long-term health effects.

Experts from the company that made the vinyl chloride in those tank cars, Oxy Vinyls, told contractors hired by the Norfolk Southern Railway that they believed no dangerous chemical reaction occurred, NTSB Chairman Jennifer Homendy said. But Oxy Vinyls was left out of the command center.

“They told them there was polymerization, they believed there was no polymerization and there was no justification for venting and burning,” Homendy said. “There was another option: let it cool.”

However, that information was never passed on to the governor of Ohio. Mike DeWine and the first responders who were in charge, she said.

Some of this information came out last spring during NTSB hearings in East Palestine. Homendy’s comments Wednesday were the clearest yet that the controversial vent-and-burn action was unnecessary. But the agency won’t release its final report on the cause of the Feb. 3, 2023, derailment until another hearing is held in June.

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DeWine’s spokesman Dan Tierney said it’s frustrating to hear now — more than a year after the derailment — that it wasn’t necessary to blow open those tankers.

“The only two scenarios ever discussed were a catastrophic explosion, which would throw shrapnel in all directions up to a mile radius, or be averted through a controlled vent and fire,” Tierney said. “No one has ever suggested a scenario where it wouldn’t explode if you didn’t do anything.”

East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick has said the consensus at the command center was that releasing and burning the chemicals was the “least bad option.”

But Homendy said they never heard Oxy Vinyls’ opinion that vinyl chloride was stable. Instead, decision makers relied on contractors alarmed by the limited temperature readings they could get, combined with the violent manner in which one of the tankers released vinyl chloride with a roar from a pressure relief valve after hours of calm. Drew McCarty of Specialized Professional Services testified last spring that the tanker “frightened the hell out of us.”

Republican Sen. J.D. Vance, who questioned Homendy during Wednesday’s hearing, said he was not trying to criticize Drabick, DeWine and the other officials who made the decision.

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“I think it’s a criticism of the people on the ground who have not provided enough information — and who, I think, have not provided enough information, to the great detriment of the community on the ground,” Vance said. “This is extraordinary work by your team, but this is a very, very disturbing set of circumstances.”

Norfolk Southern defended the decision again Wednesday, saying the plan had nothing to do with trying to get trains running faster again.

“The top priority of all involved was the safety of the community, as well as limiting the impact of the incident,” the railroad said. “The successful controlled release prevented a potentially catastrophic uncontrolled explosion.”

Krissy Ferguson, 49, has been unable to return to her home, which sits atop one of the creeks that have been polluted since the derailment. She said she was heartbroken to hear the latest updates from the NTSB.

“Is our government going to allow a company to get away with it or are they going to act on it? Or will it be swept down the polluted creek like everything else? said Ferguson.

Misti Allison, who lives with her family about a mile from the derailment site, said the findings reaffirm what she believed to be true all along: that the venting and burning did not have to happen.

“The only justification was greed, and that Norfolk Southern put profits over people to get the train tracks back up and running as quickly as possible and destroy whatever evidence was left,” Allison said.

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And most questions about the possible long-term health effects remain unanswered.

“We need to ensure that health care is available to everyone, not just those who want to participate in a study,” she said.

The NTSB has said it appears that an overheating of one of the train cars caused the derailment. Several track detectors noticed miles in advance that the bearing was starting to warm up, but the temperature did not reach a high enough level to trigger an alarm until just before the crash. That meant the crew had no opportunity to stop the train.

Many residents of eastern Palestine are eager to move on once the derailment cleanup is completed later this year, but some are still struggling with breathing problems, skin rashes and other health problems.

Norfolk Southern has said its response to the disaster and the assistance it provided to the city cost the city more than $1.1 billion. Now an investor group critical of the railroad’s response and the disappointing profits it has reported in recent years is trying to fire CEO Alan Shaw and take control of the railroad.

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Associated Press writer Patrick Orsagos contributed to this report from Columbus, Ohio.

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