lady justice figurine

Rail safety is back in the news with new developments in the Norfolk Southern train derailment case in East Palestine, Ohio. We have previously written about this train derailment in which a Norfolk Southern train with 150 cars, and 53 tank cars many carrying vinyl chloride, left the tracks near the Ohio/Pennsylvania border. Several tank cars ruptured and vinyl chloride poured into the surrounding ground and water. The cars ignited a massive firestorm around the derailed train. Over 2,000 town residents were evacuated. Since vinyl chloride is highly combustible and a known cause of cancer, Norfolk Southern executed a “controlled explosion” of the remaining tank cars to lessen the risk of explosion. This action has been recently called into question by the Nation Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) which issued its final report last week.

The NTSB’s preliminary report last year revealed that a tank car was on fire some twenty miles before it reached East Palestine. The final report agreed with those findings – an overheated wheel bearing on one of the tank cars caused the derailment. The heat detection system in place to detect wheel bearing failure and resulting derailments, failed in this case. Before the high temperature was detected and the train stopped, the tank car derailed causing a fiery crash and toxic chain reaction. The NTSB’s final report blamed this failure for causing the derailment.

The NTSB’s report did not stop there. The NTSB criticized Norfolk for interfering with its investigation. It also criticized the continued use of DOT–111 tank cars to carry hazardous chemicals. These cars are in the long process of being discontinued due to safety concerns, but remain in use at Norfolk Southern. Finally, the report disagreed with the mitigation procedures Norfolk Southern used in the wake of the derailment. Norfolk initiated a “vent and burn” procedure – which is essentially a controlled explosion – to prevent further explosions and leakage of the cancer-causing chemical. However, the NTSB determined this procedure was unnecessary as the tank cars were cooling on their own. The Board called the procedure a “last resort” and concluded it was not needed in this case. Norfolk’s controlled explosions resulted in an unnecessary release of cancer-causing vinyl chloride into the air and surrounding water. It is well known that vinyl chloride exposure can cause cancer, including lung cancer, liver cancer, brain cancer, lymphoma, and leukemia.

The NTSB final report comes on the heels of a major settlement between Norfolk Sothern and the federal government as well as a class action settlement between Norfolk and local residents. Last month, the Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a settlement between the government and Norfolk totaling over 310 million dollars. In addition to a civil penalty of 15 million dollars, the money will be used to improve rail safety and monitor the health effects of the cancer-causing chemical spill in surrounding communities. The money will also be used to monitor local air and water for years to come. A settlement was also reached recently in a class action lawsuit stemming from the derailment. Norfolk Southern has agreed to pay over 600 million dollars to settle various property damage and personal injury claims for those plaintiffs choosing to participate in the class action settlement. The residents of East Palestine fear this will not be enough to cover the cost of future cancers and other health problems that will result from this tragic chemical spill.