DERAILED: Disaster in East Palestine

Chemical burn in East Palestine derailment could have been avoided

In U.S. Senate testimony Wednesday, NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy said the burning of chemicals after the derailment wasn't necessary.

Smoke rises from a derailed Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 4, 2023.
Gene J. Puskar / AP
SMS

Norfolk Southern's decision to burn off chemicals from derailed train cars in East Palestine, Ohio, last year was based on flawed and incomplete information, National Transportation Safety Board officials said Wednesday.

In U.S. Senate testimony Wednesday, NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy said that the contractors working for Norfolk Southern didn't have the right "scientific background" to make a decision to vent and burn chemicals from the wreck. She said they should have instead given the train cars time to cool down.

The NTSB said Ohio officials were told they had just minutes to decide whether to vent and burn off the vinyl chloride carried in the train cars at the time of the wreck.

Officials with OxyVinyls, the company that was shipping the chemicals, told responders before burning began that they didn't believe there was a risk of dangerous chemical reactions that would have necessitated burning them off.

But responders "were not given full information because no one was told OxyVinyls was on scene," Homendy said in her testimony. "They were left out of the room."

Derailed: East Palestine, 1 year later
Derailed: East Palestine, 1 year later

Derailed: East Palestine, 1 year later

Scripps News visits East Palestine one year after a Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals derailed.

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The burning plume caused widespread health concerns and triggered an extensive environmental cleanup in East Palestine. 

The effects of exposure to vinyl chloride are still poorly understood and rarely researched. Current findings indicate that long-term exposure through oral contact or inhalation may cause liver issues and instances of cancer.

The EPA has said it may make a multi-year investigation into the chemical's health effects.  

In the meantime, officials maintain there are no ongoing environmental health risks in East Palestine as a result of the derailment.