March 8, 2024

Burning of chemicals after Ohio derailment was unnecessary, NTSB head says


There was no need to burn dangerous chemicals in rail cars in order to prevent an explosion after a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3, 2023, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board told a U.S. Senate committee Wednesday.

Under questioning by Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, Jennifer Homendy testified before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that temperatures in the cars had stabilized well before the burn was conducted and were too low to cause, in Vance’s words, “a runaway chemical reaction” and “an uncontrolled explosion.”

“It seems based on the data that we have that there was not a ton of reason to do the [controlled] burn, and that of course is what spread toxic chemicals all over this community and the surrounding region,” Vance said.

No one was injured in the derailment or as a result of the burn, but about 2,000 residents were temporarily evacuated, and questions about long-term health consequences linger.

“The factual information in our docket shows that Oxy Vinyls [the company shipping the chemicals] was on scene and providing information to Norfolk Southern and their contractors on the fourth, fifth and sixth [of February],” Homendy said. “They informed them that … there was no justification to do a vent and burn.”

But when officials were deciding whether to conduct the burn, she said, Gov. Mike DeWine and the incident commander were not given full information, including statements by experts for Oxy Vinyls that it wasn’t necessary.

“The incident commander didn’t even know [the Oxy Vinyls experts] existed,” she said. “Neither did the governor. So they were provided incomplete information to make a decision.”

Norfolk Southern defended the burn in a statement released after the hearing.

“The successful controlled release prevented a potentially catastrophic uncontrolled explosion that could have caused significant damage for the community,” the railroad stated.

The NTSB plans to release a final report June 25 in East Palestine on the cause of the derailment.

Homendy’s testimony comes amid a battle over leadership at Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC).

NS has defended itself against criticisms by activist investor Ancora Holdings that CEO Alan Shaw makes too much money and that another derailment last week, this one in Pennsylvania, adds urgency to the need for new leadership.

Ancora has proposed eight independent directors, who would make former UPS executive Jim Barber Jr. CEO of NS and former CSX executive Jamie Boychuk COO. Norfolk Southern wants shareholders to approve its own slate of 13 candidates.

NS said it has taken significant steps to enhance safety, including hiring an independent safety consultant, boosting employee training and joining the Federal Railroad Administration’s Confidential Close Call System.

The railroad got a boost recently when investment bank UBS moved NS’ rating from Neutral to Buy, pushing up the railroad’s stock price.


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