Crew in Ohio Train Derailment Was Alerted to Problem Before Accident

A train carrying hazardous materials.

The crew of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in Palestine, Ohio, received an alert about an overheated wheel bearing right before 38 cars carrying hazardous materials left the tracks, according to federal investigators looking into the train derailment.

The accident occurred on February 3, 2023. According to a report in The New York Times, the initial report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found that the wheel bearing had been heating up as the train carried toxic chemicals and other cargo through Ohio. But an alarm did not sound to alert the crew to check the hot axle until the train passed a sensor not far from where it eventually derailed.

While no one was injured or killed as a result of this train derailment, communities in the region were imperiled. The crash prompted the evacuation of about half the town’s 5,000 residents. There are also serious concerns about long-term health impacts in the region. The derailment of the train carrying vinyl chloride, which is used to produce PVC plastic, in the small town has left its more than 4,700 residents complaining of health effects like headaches, and fearing long-term pollution of the area.

The spilled contaminants affected over 7 miles of the Ohio River, killing about 3,500 fish, according to the Department of Natural Resources. There have also been anecdotal reports in the media that pets and livestock have been sickened.

Ongoing Investigation into Train Derailment

The sensor registered that the wheel bearing was 253 degrees above the ambient temperature, the report said. The crew, already braking as the train followed another, slowed down even more after hearing the alarm, but it was too late as 38 of the train’s 149 cars ended up leaving the tracks. The timing of when the crew was alerted to the overheated wheel bearing is a key issue in the federal investigation into the train derailment.

When the train passed the earlier two sensors, it did not register a temperature high enough to trigger an alarm under the parameters set by the train’s operator, Norfolk Southern, according to NTSB. The board’s chairwoman Jennifer L. Homendy said during a press conference that this accident was “100% preventable.” Homendy said the safety board is still investigating what caused the derailment.

But she said the initial fire was caused by the combination of the heated axle and plastic pellets in the car. Five of the derailed cars were carrying about 116,000 gallons of vinyl chloride, which is a colorless flammable gas. The fire melted the plastic placards on the train cars that are intended to notify emergency responders about the cars’ contents, Homendy said. The NTSB’s investigation into the derailment and its aftermath is expected to take at least another 12 months. The safety board plans to look into the following related to this train derailment:

  • The wheel bearing that overheated
  • The response to the derailment and the decision to burn off some of the train’s toxic cargo
  • Norfolk Southern Railway’s rail car inspection process
  • The company’s use of sensors along rail tracks

Under bipartisan legislation introduced in the last few days, railroads would have to follow new safety rules including stepping up inspections on tracks carrying the most toxic and hazardous materials. The Railway Safety Act of 2023, which is co-sponsored by U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and JD Vance, a Republican, and four others, comes in response to the Palestine derailment.

Class Action Lawsuits

At least 10 lawsuits have been filed as of this week against Norfolk Southern Railway seeking monetary damages, the creation of a medical monitoring fund, and the establishment of testing and cleaning protocols in the area. And more are coming, according to media reports. One lawsuit has alleged that Norfolk Southern knew or should have known that a controlled burn of toxic chemicals would likely cause dangerous human exposures, contaminate properties, and force evacuations.

The lawsuits are also stating that the railroad company failed to adopt safety measures that could have limited the derailment. In a Senate panel hearing this week, a local emergency management official said that Norfolk Southern railroad’s decision to call for the burning of five derailed cars in East Palestine was “jaw-dropping” and a consequence of poor communication by the railroad.

Putting Profits Over Safety

It does appear that the railroad company in this case put profits before the safety and health of local residents in East Palestine, Ohio. For the past three years, railroad unions have accused companies of cutting corners stretching workers thin, and rushing essential safety checks.

According to Jared Cassity, an official with the SMART Transportation Division, which represents some who work for Norfolk Southern, who spoke on a recent podcast: “It’s ‘Safety be damned, let’s get the freight over the road.’ That’s the new approach.” Cassity said that training for new workers had been cut from 18 weeks to a mere six, and workers sometimes have only 90 seconds to conduct a safety inspection of an entire train car.

The Need for Accountability

The experienced class action attorneys at Bisnar Chase are committed to pursuing justice for members of the community in East Palestine, Ohio, whose homes and neighborhoods have been severely impacted by this train derailment.

If you have been affected by this train derailment or other incidents involving negligence by railroad companies, we are here to help you. Prioritizing profits over public safety is unacceptable. The chemical pollution caused by this incident and the decision made by these companies to burn the derailed train cars has devastated the environment and natural habitats in this region and those who live there are likely to feel that impact for years or even generations to come. The time for accountability and change is now.

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