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NTSB to release cause of fiery Norfolk Southern derailment in eastern Ohio at June hearing

By AP | Feb 8, 2024

FILE - A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. Federal investigators said Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024, they will determine the cause of last year’s fiery Norfolk Southern derailment in eastern Ohio at a hearing in East Palestine this June 25. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

Federal investigators say they will determine the cause of last year’s fiery Norfolk Southern derailment in eastern Ohio at a hearing in East Palestine this June.

The National Transportation Safety Board announced Wednesday that it will hold the hearing at East Palestine High School on June 25 to approve the findings of its investigation. That will be nearly 17 months after the Feb. 3, 2023, derailment near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border that prompted evacuations and left residents with lingering worries about possible long-term health problems that may develop because of the chemicals that spilled and burned.

This will be the second time the full NTSB visits the town of about 5,000 people after holding investigative hearings there last summer.

“The NTSB is returning to East Palestine for our final board meeting for the same reasons we went last summer: Because the communities most affected by this tragedy deserve to hear our findings in-person and in real-time,” NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said.

Cleanup from the derailment is ongoing though Environmental Protection Agency officials said it may wrap up this summer if no additional contamination is found in the latest tests being conducted in the area. The government and railroad have reassured residents that their air and water are safe, but some doubt the test results because they don’t think enough testing has been done.

Republican lawmakers in Congress have said they want to wait until after the final NTSB report is released before considering any rail safety reforms even though they appeared to have bipartisan support. A bill that would require federal standards for trackside detectors that spot mechanical problems, additional inspections and two-person crews on freight trains has stalled in the Senate.

The NTSB said last spring in its preliminary report that the derailment was likely caused by an overheating bearing on one of the railcars. Three detectors showed the bearing starting to heat up as the train approached East Palestine, but it didn’t get hot enough to trigger an alert until it passed the final detector, and then there wasn’t enough time for the crew to stop the train before it derailed.

An assortment of toxic chemicals spilled and caught fire after 38 cars piled up off the tracks. A few days later, officials decided to blow open five tank cars of vinyl chloride, which is used to make plastic, and burn the chemical because they worried the cars might explode.