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A federal hearing on the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, reveals new details

MILES PARKS, HOST:

The rail industry went on trial this week. Federal investigators quizzed railroad and emergency personnel about the train derailment in February that led to the burning of toxic chemicals in Ohio. Hundreds of people have reported health symptoms since that crash. The National Transportation Safety Board held these hearings in the Ohio town most affected - East Palestine. The Allegheny Front's Reid Frazier has this report.

REID FRAZIER, BYLINE: One of the thorniest topics of these hearings was not the circumstances of the crash, but what happened afterwards. Five tank cars filled with chemicals sat on the railroad tracks surrounded by fire. Norfolk Southern officials worried the cars would explode due to something called polymerization. That's why they made the decision to burn the contents.

Paul Thomas is with the company that made the chemicals. He said they told the rail company there were no indications that process was happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAUL THOMAS: Three different occasions we expressed we didn't believe it was. But I think more importantly, we said, here's how you can know so that you can protect your folks. If you can get a temperature, it will tell you whether polymerization is occurring or not.

FRAZIER: Temperature readings later showed a critical tank car was actually cooling off when the burn occurred. Drew McCarty was one of the first Norfolk Southern contractors to arrive on the scene. He testified that they burned the contents of the cars because they had no better options.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DREW MCCARTY: If it was one of those four cars that had even an eighth-inch-deep score, gouge, some kind of metallurgy damage that we just never got a fair chance to look at, heaven forbid worse damage, this community was in serious risk.

FRAZIER: Investigators also focused on Norfolk Southern's safety records. Like many of the biggest railroads, the company has cut staff, put longer trains on the railroads and pushed to get cars out of rail yards faster. Unions and industry watchers say these are dangerous practices. Jason Cox represents one of these unions. He says Norfolk Southern missed opportunities to spot the problem at multiple checkpoints.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JASON COX: There are qualified mechanical inspectors at all these points, and they were not allowed to inspect this car at any of those locations.

FRAZIER: Cox pointed out Norfolk Southern has cut inspection times down to only 30 seconds per side of each rail car. He said the car that failed didn't even get this much scrutiny on its trip.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COX: This car came into Decatur, Ill., passed through Toledo, Ohio, where it's stopped, Cleveland, Ohio, where it is stopped...

FRAZIER: Norfolk Southern and industry representatives deflected much of the criticism. They argued making rules too stringent would jam up the railroads. In one exchange, NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy asked Norfolk Southern's Jared Hopewell whether the company has time limits for its inspections.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JARED HOPEWELL: In my limited experience around our mechanical department, no, I've not seen one.

JENNIFER HOMENDY: No policy that - no written policy on time limits for rail car inspections?

HOPEWELL: Limitations on time - no.

FRAZIER: The NTSB will issue safety recommendations. A bill before Congress would tighten restrictions on hazardous materials on trains and increase rail inspections. That's not helping the people of East Palestine. It's still unclear when or if they will receive long-term compensation.

For NPR News, I'm Reid Frazier. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Reid Frazier
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