NTSB investigation reveals Ohio railroad car breach was unnecessary

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (BP) — Norfolk Southern (NS) Railway Company and its contractors unnecessarily performed an intentional breach of five railway cars in February 2023, leading to a toxic cloud that has left residents unable to sell their homes to relocate and will almost certainly impact their health in the years – perhaps generations – to come.

The findings come from a report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and were presented at East Palestine High School on June 25.

NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy apologized to residents and said that although there were no injuries or deaths at the accident, that “does not mean the presence of safety.”

Joe Sheely, pastor of Solid Rock Community Church in nearby Salem, Ohio, is a resident of East Palestine whose home is about two miles from the crash site.

“Most of the people in this town are not in a financial position to relocate,” said Sheely. “They live paycheck-to-paycheck. People who own a home certainly are in a real dilemma, especially if they’re retired. How do you sell a house when it’s lost 70% of its value?”

Those living within two miles of the crash site can be given up to $70,000 in a settlement, a paltry amount when taking medical and relocation costs into effect, said residents at a May town hall meeting.

Unwilling to trust the lab results on water, soil and air from Norfolk Southern, Sheely paid $2,000 for independent testing last fall. The results came back in January.

“It showed our property was loaded with dioxins,” he said. “I took the test results to them, thinking surely they would help us relocate. They flatly refused.

“They said they would reimburse my test costs, but all they want to do is get the results and discredit the guy who did the testing, even though he used the same lab their contractors used.”

The role of a pastor has continued since the derailment. Sheely is busy helping deliver copies of the Jesus film to the area. He is still preaching each Sunday, though considering taking some time off. Prayer meetings are on Wednesdays with a home Bible study on Thursdays. Vacation Bible School is scheduled for mid-August before students return to the classroom on Aug. 22. 

Sheely is far from the only East Palestine resident to harbor a cold distrust of those appearing to downplay potential long-term effects of the crash.

“It feels like we continue to feel gaslit about the causes of our acute health symptoms, which truly now are chronic exposures,” said Jess Conard after attending an event in April hosted by several university groups studying the derailment’s impact.

“At the bare minimum, even if some of the rashes are stress-related because this is a stressful situation, the stress itself came from this disaster and should be acknowledged and validated as such. But I will say, never in my life as a medical professional have I heard of a 4-year-old being diagnosed with asthma due to stress or an elderly person being diagnosed with chemical burns due to stress. Yet, these are things we are being told.”

Unnecessary actions bring toxic cloud, long-term damage

The train derailed about 8:54 p.m. on Feb. 3, 2023, after a bearing on a car overheated and caused an axle to separate. Three tank cars carrying flammable and combustible materials were subsequently breached as a fire started from the derailment.

According to a synopsis of the full report set to be released in the coming weeks, other derailed cars included five containing vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), a compressed, liquified flammable gas. Based on information from Norfolk Southern and its contractors, the incident commander performed a deliberate breach, called a vent and burn, on all five derailed VCM cars on Feb. 6 to prevent an explosion.

The report went on to say that the incident commander was not aware of dissenting opinions sent to Norfolk Southern and its contractors from the VCM shipper. If not for the vent and burn, the VCM would have remained in a stable environment. Instead, the burn brought a noxious, toxic cloud that settled over the area.

“NS compromised the integrity of the decision to vent and burn the tank cars by not communicating expertise and dissenting opinions to the incident commander making the final decision,” the report said. “This failure to communicate completely and accurately with the incident commander was unjustified.”

In May, the Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a $310 million settlement with Norfolk Southern that covered various fines and requirements to cover past and future cleanup costs.

A separate $600 million settlement with East Palestine residents brought angry shouts at legal counsel amid frustrations that it wasn’t enough. Settlement amounts will go to those within 20 miles of the crash and be based on an allocation formula that includes proximity, household size, number of children and relocation mandates.

Norfolk Southern rejected three other removal methods before performing the vent and burn, said the NTSB report. Sheely alleges that is because the company was losing money every day the track wasn’t cleared for use and was more interested in the quickest method possible, regardless of long-term effects on local residents.

“It would’ve taken weeks to get the train rolling again,” he said. “By doing what they did, it was on the rails again in days.”

Threats to NTSB and investigators

Norfolk Southern threatened and attempted to intimidate Homendy and the NTSB into putting to rest the “rumor” that the company performed the vent and burn to move trains and that it was time for NS and East Palestine to “move on,” said Homendy.

Laying out various ways Norfolk Southern attempted to bypass the findings of NTSB investigators, she went on to call the rail company’s actions “unconscionable.”

Sheely is 64 and his wife, who suffered a heart attack last year, is 66. Both have skin lesions he said comes from the water. His health difficulties since then have included brain fog, memory loss and a consistent sound in his head he said resembles a tire losing air pressure. He was scheduled for an MRI on June 25.

Echoing Homendy’s point on the appearance of safety, former East Palestine resident Jami Wallace told Scripps News that deaths are coming.

“No one’s died yet,” said Wallace, noting that Center for Disease Control (CDC) doctors told them cancer-causing agents were in their bodies from the crash.

“The bodies will start stacking up in ten years when we get cancer. … We’re going to die a slow, painful death, a death our child is going to have to watch us go through, or God forbid, we’ll have to watch our child go through.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Scott Barkley is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press.)

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