The decision to blow off and burn the cancer-causing chemicals from five train cars in eastern Palestine, Ohio, in February came under renewed scrutiny Thursday as federal investigators questioned officials in the community who are still reeling from the aftermath of a derailment of a toxic train.
The National Transportation Safety Board, or NTSB, on Thursday held the first of two days of investigative hearings in Eastern Palestine, a village of about 4,700 near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border where the Feb. 3 derailment occurred.
It was revealed on Thursday that the Norfolk Southern train required two repairs by mechanical personnel the day before the derailment in eastern Palestine, according to investigators, who say the train’s fire could be seen on cameras up to about 26 miles from the derailment site.
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An overheated wheel bearing appears to have been the cause of the derailment, which involved 38 rail cars, the NTSB said. Eleven cars with hazardous materials ignited and fueled fires, it said.
Federal investigators also released a trove of files on Thursday as they began personally questioning the railroad, first responder and other officials.
On Feb. 6, three days after the train derailed and caught fire, Ohio officials said they feared an explosion had released vinyl chloride, a toxic, flammable gas, and that there was a burn.
Five cars that derailed contained stabilized vinyl chloride monomer, or VCM, said Paul Thomas, a vice president of manufacturer Oxy Vinyls.
The tanks did not burst and the pressure relief devices worked, he said. Vinyl chloride when exposed to heat can undergo a “rapid polymerization reaction” that can cause an explosion, according to the NTSB.
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Thomas said the company has spoken with Norfolk Southern and its emergency response contractors following the derailment.
“We made it clear, based on our expertise of the chemical properties of our product, that stabilized VCM is unlikely to spontaneously polymerize,” said Thomas.
He said Oxy Vinyls had no real-time information from the site, and “we did not participate in or advise on the decision on the vent and burn operation.”
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Robert Wood, director of hazardous materials at Norfolk Southern, said on Thursday that railroad officials observed “multiple signs of polymerization” in the tanks of vinyl chloride, in their opinion.
“Our concern quickly grew because an uncontrolled tanker explosion would be catastrophic,” Wood said.
Keith Drabick, chief of the 38-member Eastern Palestine Volunteer Fire Department, made the final decision to vent and burn chemicals.
He said on Thursday that Norfolk Southern never told him that Oxy Vinyls had let it be known that it did not believe polymerization was taking place.
Drabick said he “got a little blindsided” when it came time to call for a vent and burn, according to a transcript released Thursday.
“I was met by the CEO and several other members and one of the members said I had 13 minutes to decide if we were going to air or burn because daylight was running out. I was very overwhelmed with that approach to putting that to me to explain,” he said, according to a transcript.
Drabick said Thursday there was a consensus. The railroad and its contractors were particularly concerned about one tank of vinyl chloride for a vent and burning because of the temperature, he said.
A meeting was held with a unified command, including Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, he said. “We had to make that decision very quickly,” and there were no objections or alternative means of controlling it, he said.
“The decision was made to go ahead and let that process happen, to avoid that catastrophic failure of the train car,” Drabick said.
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw has been summoned before both legislators and members of Congress in Ohio and apologized for the slippage. He promised that the railroad would clean the site thoroughly and safely.
The NTSB said in March it was launching an investigation into Norfolk Southern, including an investigation into the railroad’s safety practices and culture.
Ahead of Thursday’s hearing, Norfolk Southern issued a statement detailing its safety initiative efforts and progress in remediation of the derailment site.
Drabick told the NTSB at Thursday’s hearing that the train derailment “changed eastern Palestine forever.” He said it was a miracle no one was killed and more property was not damaged.
He said it remains to be seen if there are any health effects.
“I’m worried about not just my responders, but everyone around because of long-term health issues,” he said. “It has to weigh in the back of your mind, for everyone.”
Phil Helsel and Nadine Comerford contributed.