Feds: No evidence crew did anything wrong in Ohio rail wreck
The National Transportation Safety Board said the toxic spills and gases released by the East Palestine train derailment were not the fault of the crew which acted appropriately. Today the EPA has issued an update and said 45,000 animals have died thus far because of the disaster. | Gene J. Puskar/AP

WASHINGTON—The engineer, the conductor and the trainee on the Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed and wrecked on Feb. 3, releasing vinyl chloride and other hazardous chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, did nothing wrong, the head of the federal government’s independent safety agency says.

“This was 100% preventable,” National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy, a veteran accident investigator, told a Feb. 23 press conference. “We call things accidents; This was no accident.

“We have no evidence the crew did anything wrong.”

Instead, though NTSB is not drawing any conclusions yet, Homendy said the big freight rail firm could bear responsibility. A federal regulator, the Environmental Protection Agency, has already ordered Norfolk Southern to clean up the air and water its wreck befouled. If NS doesn’t, EPA will—and charge it triple the cost (see EPA story).

Homendy was more cautious. “When it comes to prevention, it could be actions on the railroad’s part, or problems with the wheel bearings” or other factors that caused the disaster. Once NTSB discovers that, “we’ll know probable cause,” Homendy said. But it can’t enforce its safety recommendations, for this accident or any other.

That’s up to other agencies and the railroads, too. But the freight railroads instead lobby against safety, a point top rail union leader Eddie Hall reiterated in a statement after Homendy’s session. The railroads all claim they’re safe. Left unsaid by the carriers, but not by Hall: Safety measures would cut their profits—and profits please their Wall Street backers.

NTSB will hold a rare investigative field hearing in East Palestine, seeking more information from witnesses on the way to deciding cause and making recommendations to change. They’re to discover “what occurred, how it occurred, why it occurred and what we can do to prevent it from occurring again,” she said.

Norfolk Southern’s CEO finally showed up in East Palestine for a “town hall,” on Feb. 23. Video of parts of the session shows he got an earful from angry residents.

Homendy said the crew reacted quickly to slow and stop the train once a wayside detector electronically sent an alarm to the engine cab about the overheated axle whose bearing burned, setting off the derailment and fire. And the crew disconnected the locomotives and moved them a mile away from the burning car, #23 in the 149-car line.

Set their own temp alarm levels

The catch, Homendy said, was Norfolk Southern—and all other railroads—set their own temperature levels for when the alarms go off.

NS’s first detector showed the axle was 38 degrees hotter than the surrounding 10-degree temperature, and its second detector showed the axle was 103 degrees hotter. NS set the alarms to go off at 200 degrees hotter, and the third sent the alarm because the axle was 253 degrees hotter. Just a few moments later, the train derailed.

“Had there been a detector earlier, that derailment would not have occurred.”

“Was there any wrongdoing on Norfolk Southern’s part? We’ll have to do that analysis,” while enforcement agencies—also on the wreck investigation team—can take action before that, Homendy said. “I want Norfolk Southern to act,” she declared. “I want” federal regulatory agencies “to act.”

Hall, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen/Teamsters, whose union is the designated workers’ representative in the probe, reiterated the presence of three crew members on the freight prevented what could have been a far worse disaster. As part of their lobbying against safety, the railroads have lobbied for one worker per train, or none.

In his statement, Hall also made the point that Norfolk Southern and the other big Class I freight railroads have spent “half a billion dollars” in recent years lobbying against safety rules.

“We were very fortunate this time that there were three crew members on this train,” said Hall, an engineer for Union Pacific. “They were able to respond to the emergency, uncouple the locomotives from the train cars and take other action. If this had been a train operated by one crew member it may have taken longer to react to the fire caused by the failure of the bearings, axles and other mechanical items.

“Already, the Association of American Railroads”—the carriers ’lobby—”and the railroads are pushing back against attempts to learn from this derailment. They are hiding behind the NTSB process and suggesting we should wait for the final report, which is probably a year away from being issued.” Homendy said it could take up to 18 months.

“There’s growing public awareness of irresponsible behavior by the railroads. Now is the time to toughen regulations on America’s railroads to keep both railroad workers and the communities our members operate through safe,” Hall concluded.

One point near the end of the press conference irked Homendy: Former Republican Oval Office occupant Donald Trump had visited East Palestine, wearing his MAGA hat, and blasted the Biden administration’s response to the wreck—conveniently not mentioning his railroad regulators agreed to lax or non-existent safety rules the big freight railroads sought.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg called Trump, and the railroads, on that. “They should stop fighting us on safety,” Buttigieg said of Norfolk Southern and the other carriers.

“This is what I’m going to say: Enough with the politics on this! Enough with the politics!” Homendy said. “I don’t understand why this has gotten so political. This is about a community that is suffering (her emphasis). This is about addressing their needs, their concerns. That’s what this should be about. So I don’t care about the politics.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.