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NTSB releases report as Pete Buttigieg arrives in East Palestine to survey toxic train derailment

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg arrived in East Palestine, Ohio on Thursday to survey the site of a Norfolk Southern train derailment. Photo courtesy of Pete Buttigieg/Instagram
1 of 6 | Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg arrived in East Palestine, Ohio on Thursday to survey the site of a Norfolk Southern train derailment. Photo courtesy of Pete Buttigieg/Instagram

Feb. 23 (UPI) -- Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg traveled Thursday to East Palestine, Ohio, to see clean-up efforts up close, as the NTSB released a brief report outlining initial events the night of the train derailment and fire.

The Norfolk Southern crew on the freight train that derailed in East Palestine earlier this month tried to stop after an audible alarm activated because of an overheated wheel bearing, according to a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board.

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The train had been carrying derailed cars with 115,580 gallons of vinyl chloride, a colorless hazardous gas. The report said the alarm did not go off until temperatures reached 253 degrees F above the ambient temperature.

"After the train stopped, the crew observed fire and smoke and notified the Cleveland East dispatcher of a possible derailment," the NTSB report said.

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"With dispatcher authorization, the crew applied handbrakes to the two railcars at the head of the train, uncoupled the head-end locomotives, and moved the locomotives about one mile from the uncoupled railcars. Responders arrived at the derailment site and began response efforts."

Buttigieg arrived at the village of 4,700 to talk with the community a day after former President Donald Trump visited the area.

Buttigieg shared a photo of himself at the site on Thursday morning where teams with the Environmental Protection Agency have been on the ground near the site of the Feb. 3 derailment continuously testing air and water quality.

"This morning I'm in East Palestine, Ohio, to see the site of the Norfolk Southern derailment, hear updates from investigators, and meet first responders," Buttigieg wrote on Instagram.

"USDOT will continue its work to ensure safety and accountability."

Previously, a Transportation Department official noted that Buttigieg did not want to distract from the emergency phase of the disaster before "transitioning to the long-term remediation phase."

The White House, meanwhile, has not yet announced whether President Joe Biden would visit East Palestine following the president's return from Ukraine and Poland.

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Buttigieg arrived after calling on Congress and the freight railroad industry to strengthen safety measures to prevent future derailments. The EPA this week also ordered Norfolk Southern to clean up the site or face federal fines and penalties that would more than triple the cost to the company.

Norfolk Southern responded Thursday afternoon to the preliminary NTSB report, saying it will continue to cooperate with the ongoing investigation.

"Since the incident, Norfolk Southern has focused on supporting the Village of East Palestine and the NTSB throughout their investigation. NTSB investigators have worked tirelessly, and we appreciate everything they are doing. We share the NTSB Chair's frustration about the significant misinformation about the incident," the Atlanta-based company said in a statement.

The company pointed out its rail crew "operated the train within the company's rules," and below the posted speed limit on that stretch of track. It also said the wayside heat detectors operated as designed. Wayside heat detectors are designed to reduce risk by identifying poorly performing equipment before any defects reach a breaking point.

"Once the rail crew was alerted by the wayside detector, they immediately began to stop the train," the company said in a statement.

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"Under the supervision of the Federal Railroad Administration, the company has inspected all wayside detectors in the area of the incident and found they were operating as designed. Out of an abundance of caution, Norfolk Southern is now inspecting all of the nearly 1,000 wayside heat detectors on its system -- on top of the regular inspection of the detectors every 30 days.

On Wednesday, the company's CEO Alan Shaw announced the company plans to excavate and remove soil from the disaster site and replace the rail tracks as part of a comprehensive response plan.

Shaw said the company was forced to revise its blueprint after conversations with the community revealed additional concerns.

"It is important to me that the members of this community have confidence in Norfolk Southern's remediation efforts and that we are working closely with local, state, and federal agencies," Shaw said in a statement. "An important part of this plan is to listen to the concerns of the community and that's a primary reason why we are going to enhance our plan."

Also Wednesday, the company said it reached a deal with one of its largest labor unions that will allow 3,000 employees to take up to seven days of paid sick leave per year.

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Buttigieg's visit Thursday also comes after Former President Donald Trump gave a speech a day prior at an East Palestine fire station alongside Republican Sen. J.D. Vance, U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway, Ohio State Senator Michael Rulli, and the former president's oldest son, Donald Trump Jr.

Trump described the incident as a "tragedy" as he praised first responders and the ongoing cleanup effort by Norfolk Southern, while telling nervous residents "you are not forgotten" amid growing fears of massive contamination throughout the region.

The former president said his organization would supplement the federal response by donating cleaning supplies and bottled water to affected families.

"It means that the affected communities beyond the borders of East Palestine are going to be taken care of, and they've said so. They've said it loud and clear and I think they probably mean it," Trump said.

During the speech in the small town of about 5,000 people, Trump criticized the White House and the Federal Emergency Management Agency for not responding more swiftly to the disaster.

"When I announced that I was coming, they changed their tune. It was an amazing phenomenon," Trump told the crowd.

"I sincerely hope that when your representatives and all of the politicians get here, including Biden, they get back from touring Ukraine, that he's got some money left over," Trump said.

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Trump, who announced a third run for the White House last November, was greeted warmly by the crowd, with many waving "Trump 2024" campaign flags while chanting "U.S.A.!" and "We love you, Trump!"

The White House this week criticized Trump for ending Obama-era regulations that would have likely prevented the disaster.

"Congressional Republicans and former Trump Administration officials owe East Palestine an apology for selling them out to rail industry lobbyists when they dismantled Obama-Biden rail safety protections as well as EPA powers to rapidly contain spills," the statement from Andrew Bates said.

"Congressional Republicans laid the groundwork for the Trump Administration to tear up requirements for more effective train brakes, and last year most House Republicans wanted to defund our ability to protect drinking water."

Three days after the derailment, emergency officials feared an explosion, which prompted a controlled burn of massive amounts of vinyl chloride that sent a large plume of black smoke billowing into the atmosphere.

Residents were given the OK to return home five days after the crash but have since become increasingly afraid for their health and safety as many were experiencing persistent symptoms, including burning eyes, headaches, nausea and irritated skin.

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For days, officials have been on the ground trying to tamp down panic, which was amplified by an estimated 3,500 small fish that turned up dead across several miles of streams after the crash.

On Thursday, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources said it estimates that the actual number of minnows killed in a 5-mile span of waterways from the derailment site to Little Beaver Creek is more than 38,000.

The estimated number of other aquatic life killed, including small fish, crayfish, amphibians and macroinvertebrates, is about 5,500.

None of the animals killed are believed to belong to endangered or threatened species.

"Although dead aquatic species still remain in the impacted waterways, the entirety of the impact to the aquatic life is believed to have occurred in the first 24 hours after the derailment," the department said in a statement.

"There is no immediate threat to minnows, fish or other aquatic species -- in fact, live fish have returned to Leslie Run."

Despite continued assurances from local officials, many East Palestine residents remain convinced that drinking water, pets, crops, and livestock were already exposed in the disaster's immediate aftermath.

Both Pennsylvania and Ohio are also considering criminal charges against the company for potential failures that led to the disaster.

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