How the Ohio Train Derailment and Its Aftermath Unfolded
The Feb. 3 derailment in East Palestine of a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals set off an emergency response as residents worried about long-term health effects.
On Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, igniting a fire and setting off fears of an explosion. The authorities carried out a controlled release and burn-off of some of the train’s hazardous cargo, but residents on both sides of the Ohio-Pennsylvania state line are concerned about the impact on their health and the environment.
Here is a timeline of the derailment and its aftermath, from the evacuations during the emergency response to the investigations and cleanup.
The train was on its way from Madison, Ill., to Conway, Pa., when, around 9 p.m., 38 of its 150 cars derailed in East Palestine, a village of 4,700 residents about 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. A fire ensued, damaging an additional 12 cars. Shortly after the derailment, 1,500 to 2,000 residents were told to evacuate.
Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio and Gov. Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania expanded the evacuation zone to a one-mile-by-two-mile area around East Palestine, on both sides of the line between the two states.
The authorities released toxic materials from five tankers, and the contents were diverted to a trench and burned off. The train was carrying chemicals and combustible materials, with vinyl chloride, a toxic flammable gas, being of most concern to investigators.
Mr. DeWine, a Republican, said residents could return after air quality samples measured contaminants below levels of concern. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources said the chemical spill had affected about seven and a half miles of stream and had killed an estimated 3,500 fish.
The Train Derailment in Ohio
When a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3, it set off evacuation orders, a toxic chemical scare and a federal investigation.
- Federal Lawsuit: The Ohio attorney general has filed a 58-count lawsuit against Norfolk Southern, charging that the derailment was a product of the company’s negligence and recklessness.
- Financial Support: The chief executive of Norfolk Southern told Congress that his company would create a medical compensation fund and a property assurance program to help residents of East Palestine.
- Rail Heat Sensors: Safety experts believe that the derailment might not have happened had Norfolk Southern placed the detectors closer together. The federal government doesn’t require their use, but new regulations might be on the way.
- Investigation Into Safety Practices: The National Transportation Safety Board opened a special investigation into Norfolk Southern’s “safety culture,” mentioning five significant accidents, including the one in East Palestine, the company has suffered since December 2021.
The Environmental Protection Agency told Norfolk Southern in a letter that about 20 rail cars had been carrying hazardous materials and that vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether had been released into the air, surface soil and surface waters.
The E.P.A. said that it had not detected contaminants at “levels of concern” in and around East Palestine and that it had found no breaches of quality standards after testing hundreds of homes.
At a meeting in East Palestine, frustrated residents described their lack of trust in public officials and in Norfolk Southern, saying that no one had clearly communicated the scale of the disaster and the public health threat. Representatives from Norfolk Southern did not attend.
Mr. DeWine said on Twitter that state tests had showed no contaminants in the municipal water system.
Visiting East Palestine for the first time since the derailment, the E.P.A. administrator, Michael S. Regan, said that residents with private wells should use bottled water until tests showed that the well water was safe to drink. Mr. Shapiro, a Democrat, said that independent testing had not detected “concerning air or water quality readings” as a result of the derailment in Pennsylvania.
Alan H. Shaw, the Norfolk Southern chief executive, said during a visit to East Palestine that hazardous material was being cleaned up. Liquid waste was being disposed of at a facility in Vickery, and solid waste was being shipped to an incinerator in East Liverpool, the E.P.A. said.
The E.P.A. ordered Norfolk Southern to identify and clean up contaminated soil and water, reimburse it for cleaning homes and businesses and attend public meetings and take other measures. The E.P.A. said that if the company failed to complete those actions, it would “seek to compel Norfolk Southern to pay triple the cost” of the work.
In its first report on the accident, the N.T.S.B. said that the train’s crew had received an alert about an overheated wheel bearing only shortly before the derailment. The agency found that while the wheel bearing was heating up, an alarm did not sound to alert the crew to check a hot axle until the train had passed a sensor not far from where it ultimately derailed. “This was 100 percent preventable,” Jennifer L. Homendy, the N.T.S.B. chair, said at a news conference in Washington.
Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, visited East Palestine and promised support for the community. Mr. Buttigieg and other government officials had faced criticism over what some residents and lawmakers saw as a delayed response, and he acknowledged that he should have spoken out sooner.
In the first such proposal to emerge in Congress since the derailment, two House Democrats, Chris Deluzio of Pennsylvania and Ro Khanna of California, introduced a bill to broaden the definition of what is considered a “high-hazard flammable train.”
A group of Republicans and Democrats in the Senate proposed legislation to mandate that the Transportation Department tighten safety rules for freight rail, the first sign of bipartisan activity on the issue since the derailment.
Darrell Wilson, a senior Norfolk Southern official, attended a town meeting in East Palestine, where residents shared their frustrations and some said they were still living in hotels or experiencing health problems. The E.P.A. instructed Norfolk Southern to test for dioxins, toxic pollutants that could have formed after the chemical burn-off.
Another Norfolk Southern train derailed in Ohio, this time near Springfield. No hazardous materials were involved.
Mr. Shapiro, the Pennsylvania governor, said he had secured an initial commitment from Norfolk Southern to pay more than $7 million in damages to Pennsylvania, including a $1 million community relief fund.
The N.T.S.B. said it had opened a special investigation into safety practices at Norfolk Southern because of five significant accidents since December 2021, including the East Palestine derailment. The Federal Railroad Administration, the primary rail safety regulator, announced that it would conduct a 60-day safety assessment of Norfolk Southern.
Mr. Shaw, the Norfolk Southern chief executive, told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that he was “deeply sorry” for the effects of the derailment, but stopped short of promising to pay for long-term medical costs, health care and economic damages from the accident.
Ohio’s attorney general filed a 58-count federal lawsuit against Norfolk Southern, accusing it of numerous violations of state and federal environmental laws. The lawsuit, which also raises claims of public nuisance and trespass, seeks to force the company to pay civil penalties, costs and damages to reimburse the state for economic losses and harm to natural resources.