The chair of the National Transportation Safety Board urged U.S. lawmakers Wednesday to improve safety measures on freight trains – in light of Norfolk Southern's train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, last month.
"The bottom line is there are no accidents," NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said Wednesday. "This derailment, as all accidents we investigate, was 100% preventable."
At a U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing, Homendy suggested broadening the definition of a high-hazard flammable train, phasing out less protective tank cars, ensuring communities know what's moving through their towns and requiring railroads to set up crash recording equipment that can capture at least 12 hours of data.
The Feb. 3 derailment, near the rural town of 4,700 people along the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, created plumes of smoke and prompted concerns about air, water and soil quality. Five of the derailed cars contained the highly toxic carcinogen, vinyl chloride, which Norfolk Southern officials released and burned off to prevent an explosion.
Misti Allison, a resident of East Palestine, described the anxiety of not knowing whether she is safe in her own home because of dangerous chemicals released during the controlled burn, which may cause damage that won't show up for years.
"My 7-year-old has asked me if he is going to die from living in his own home," Allison said. "What do I tell him?"
She added: "This preventable accident has put a scarlet letter on our town. People don't want to come here. Businesses are struggling. Our home values are plummeting. Even if we wanted to leave we couldn't who would buy our homes?"
Headaches, coughing, burning of the skin: Symptoms Ohio residents have experienced after toxic train derailment
Norfolk Southern chief faced bipartisan grilling
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle took turns grilling Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw and Ian Jefferies, CEO of the Association of American Railroads, an industry group. All agreed that change was necessary, and Shaw apologized repeatedly, though he declined to commit to all changes put forward in a bipartisan bill introduced by Ohio's Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown and Republican Sen. J.D. Vance.
Brown said Norfolk Southern, the Atlanta-based railroad operator, had 579 violations in cases that have been closed and paid an average fine of less than $3,300 in the most recent fiscal year available.
"The company, keep in mind, planned to spend $3.4 billion on stock buybacks and they already did that and even more, right before, and they were about to do it again when the train derailed," Brown said. "It's now a cost of doing business, the fines, it really is a rounding error."
The East Palestine derailment has led lawmakers to question the industry's use of cost-cutting tactics to try to improve efficiency and boost profits.
“We can't have railroads adopt operating models focused on just cutting costs to achieve higher profits and then have higher accident rates," said Committee Chair Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington. "We need to invest in the modernization of equipment that will provide the safety we need.”
Norfolk Southern CEO skirted responsibility for preventing wreck
Under strong pressure from lawmakers, Norfolk Southern's CEO Alan Shaw was unwilling to commit to suspending stock buybacks, noting that "buybacks never come at the expense of safety." Shaw was also unwilling to commit to supporting a legislative requirement for two-person crews on all freight trains.
While Shaw acknowledged that the accident was preventable – as the NTSB stated – under questioning Shaw declined to say that it was Norfolk Southern's responsibility to prevent it.
"I'm taking responsibility to enhance safety throughout the entire industry," Shaw said. "I think about safety each and every day."
Only 20 minutes of crash-recording data preserved
The locomotive involved in the February derailment was equipped with an inward-facing camera, but because it was immediately put back into service after the accident, data from the day of the wreck was overwritten, Homendy told lawmakers. "That means the recorder only provided about 15 minutes of data before the derailment and five minutes after."
Homendy noted that Amtrak and commuter railroads are required to maintain crash and fire-hardened inward- and outward-facing image recorders in all controlling locomotives that can record for a minimum of 12 hours nonstop. Such information is crucial for investigators, she said.
"Now is the time to expand that requirement to audio and to include the Class I freight railroads in that mandate," Homendy said. "In fact, now is the time to address all of the NTSB's open rail safety recommendations, many of which are on our most wanted list."
Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, ranking member on the committee, called it "lunacy" that the video wasn't preserved and the locomotive was put back into service.
Federal investigators have new concerns: East Palestine train derailment involved older equipment
NTSB proposals from 2013 accident not yet reality
Homendy said a spill of vinyl chloride occurred during a train accident in 2013, after which NTSB issued a number of recommendations:
Providing real-time information to emergency responders;
Ensuring they are adequately trained and provided proper gear; and
Ensuring emergency responders are part of emergency planning with local entities and the railroads.
In the East Palestine derailment, plastic placards identifying the railcars carrying hazardous materials melted in the subsequent fire, so first responders couldn't easily identify what chemicals they were dealing with.
Homendy said first responders did not have access to a railroad app that was supposed to also provide such information and did not have the correct information about what hazmat cargo the train was carrying "for quite a long time."
Vance said one reason he and Brown wrote their new bill is because these recommendations have never become the rule.
Environmental cleanup continues
So far, more than 6,801 tons of contaminated soil and 7.4 million gallons of liquid wastewater have been transported out of East Palestine to designated waste facilities.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael S. Regan said he believed Norfolk Southern should be moving faster to remove contaminated soil from East Palestine – and that, at the current rate, the site would take roughly three more months to clean up.
Regan noted that some states, such as Oklahoma, have been turning away or trying to impede waste shipments from East Palestine and that the agency has alerted states of their legal obligations and notified every state environmental regulator across the country that states cannot unilaterally stop the shipments.
"There is nothing special or out of the ordinary about this waste, other than the fact that it's coming from a town that has suffered deeply," Regan said. "This is impermissible and this is unacceptable."
Norfolk Southern hit by dozens of lawsuits, including from Ohio
Earlier this month, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced the state would sue Norfolk Southern for the derailment and to force the company to pay for costs incurred as a result.
The federal lawsuit accuses the company of "recklessly endangering" the health of East Palestine residents and Ohio's natural resources when the derailment caused the release of 1 million gallons of hazardous chemicals. The lawsuit seeks to hold Norfolk Southern financially responsible and asks the court to order the company to conduct future soil and groundwater monitoring and prohibit Norfolk Southern from disposing contaminated soil at the derailment site and from polluting Ohio waters.
The lawsuit cites 58 violations of federal and state environmental laws and Ohio Common Law. It also cites the company's escalating accident rate, which it says has nearly doubled over the past 10 years. At least 20 Norfolk Southern derailments since 2015 have included chemical discharges, according to the lawsuit.
Trains are becoming less safe: Why the East Palestine derailment disaster could happen more often
The railroad operator faces roughly two dozen lawsuits filed by residents and businesses who say the derailment impacted them.
NTSB examines pressure relief devices
The NTSB is continuing to investigate the derailment, which occurred moments after crew members were notified of an overheated wheel bearing and tried to stop.
Railroad operators, in this case Norfolk Southern, set the critical temperature on wayside detectors at which a train crew is notified. The NTSB is also looking at the company's safety culture and procedures.
The agency said Tuesday that further investigation revealed some of the pressure relief devices on tank cars carrying vinyl chloride may have been compromised. Such devices are supposed to help regulate internal tank pressure by releasing small amounts of material and closing back up once conditions return to normal.
One of the installed devices had an internal spring that was coated with aluminum, according to the manufacturer's specifications, but that metal "is not compatible with vinyl chloride," the NTSB said. Investigators found no evidence that the melted aluminum from the protective housing covers on the pressure relief devices entered the tanks themselves.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Norfolk Southern head sidesteps responsibility for preventing East Palestine derailment