A Norfolk Southern train passes through the center of the village of East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 22, weeks after one of the company's trains derailed, spilling hazardous chemicals. Photo by Aaron Josefczyk/UPI | License Photo
June 23 (UPI) -- Norfolk Southern operators and rail industry officials will testify before the National Transportation Safety Board for a second day Friday as part of an ongoing investigation into a toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, in early February.
The two-day hearing is the first official step in learning what led to the disaster while also addressing several issues that emerged from the crash, including the preparedness of first responders, decision-making by company officials, ongoing processes to clean up the spill, and an examination of existing railway safety systems.
Opening statements will begin at 9 a.m. EDT, with witness statements on freight car wheel bearings and wayside defect detectors that industry experts say could have prevented the accident.
The hearing, which is being held at East Palestine High School, will be streamed live on the NTSB's YouTube channel.
Testimony is expected from union leaders, Federal Railroad Administration officials, the Ohio National Guard and several local fire and police departments, as well as representatives from Norfolk Southern.
The larger probe into the accident was expected to last through the summer of 2024, while the NTSB planned to use information from the hearing to "complete the investigation, determine probable cause, and make recommendations to improve transportation safety," the agency said.
"The communities most affected by this tragedy deserve as much insight as possible into our investigation, which is why we're holding an investigative hearing in East Palestine," NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said in a statement this week. "While we unfortunately cannot change what happened that day, our entire agency is committed to carrying out our mission, which doesn't end when we get to the bottom of what happened and why it happened -- we'll also work vigorously to prevent it from ever happening again."
On Thursday, the NTSB panel released its preliminary findings, showing Norfolk Southern supervisors in Decatur, Ill., had dismissed an engineer's safety concerns about the weight of the train before 38 cars went off the tracks on Feb. 3.
The derailment ruptured 11 tankers, many of them filled with toxic vinyl chloride, which threatened air, soil and drinking water throughout Ohio and Pennsylvania. Fearing a bigger crisis, emergency officials ordered a controlled burn of the chemicals that sent a large plume of black smoke billowing into the atmosphere on Feb. 6.
"If you talk to the manager, they said this train was 100% rule compliant," the engineer told the agency. "To me, in my opinion, you know, you got 32% of the weight on the headend, 20% in the middle and 40% weight on the rear end. So, to me, that's why we reported that to the yardmaster and like I said this is what they want."
In response, Norfolk Southern said the Federal Railroad Administration never issued requirements for train configuration, and that all the company's other internal protocols had been followed by the book.
"Every accident is an opportunity to learn," Norfolk Southern spokesman Connor Spielmaker told CNBC. "We are collaborating with labor leadership and our craft employees to enhance safety, we've brought in an outside safety consultant, and we are committed to leading the industry."
The NTSB previously said the ill-fated train had three crew members on board who adequately responded to the derailment.
The Biden administration ordered the company to clean up the spill or face heavy federal penalties that would more than triple the cost, while the Justice Department and state governments have filed lawsuits alleging the company violated numerous state and federal environmental laws.
Previously, Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw vowed to comply with the federal directives, saying the company would create long-term groundwater testing, fund health care, and compensate for any losses to property values in the affected region.
The company has also agreed to update some of its safety measures, which will include installing more heat detectors on the tracks.
The Transportation Communications Union issued a statement to the NTSB this week alleging the company had shortened average inspection times for each train car from nearly four minutes to about one minute in an effort to meet scheduling goals.
However, Norfolk Southern countered that the current average car inspection time was approximately two minutes, and that there was no standing policy on the length of inspections.
"It is not accurate to say NS has 'reduced' the standard amount of time for a car inspection since the implementation of PSR. What we have done is documented and standardized what a proper inspection looks like, and the time it should take a qualified railroader to complete that inspection," Spielmaker said.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is keeping pressure on the company to continue environmental monitoring and probing dioxin levels around the crash site as East Palestine residents remain deeply concerned about their exposure in the disaster's aftermath.
Norfolk Southern operates in 22 eastern states.