The crew of the freight train carrying dangerous chemicals that derailed in Ohio earlier this month received a warning about an overheating wheel bearing and tried to slow the train before it came off the tracks, according to an interim report released on Thursday by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
The wheel bearing was heating up for several miles before reaching 253F hotter than the air temperature, investigators found, a dangerous level requiring a train to stop to prevent disaster.
The train engineer put the brakes on and the automatic braking system activated, the report said. But the train still derailed and was engulfed in a huge fireball, near the town of East Palestine, on 3 February.
Fifty of the train’s 149 cars derailed, with 11 of the derailed cars carrying huge quantities of toxic chemicals, prompting an evacuation order and a declaration of a state of emergency in the Ohio town, which has been gripped by fears of toxic water and air, despite assurances from state and federal officials that the area is largely safe.
Some residents have since returned amid fears about immediate and longer-term health risks.
Earlier this week, the Ohio health department opened a free clinic at a church in the middle of town as fear and frustration rises among residents who continue to suffer symptoms including headache, nausea, cough, a burning sensation in the throat and nose, and panic attacks.
Retirees Ron Caratelli, 63, and his wife Peggy, 64, live less than a mile from the toxic spill site, and came in for a check-up as they have been unable to return home due to adverse health effects.
“Every time we try to come back to the house, I get burning eyes and throat, and a chemical taste in the back of my mouth. It’s not good. Yesterday I had a weird sensation in my lungs,” Ron Caratelli told the Guardian on Thursday, under sunny skies as freight trains rumbled by.
“What is this doing to me and others long-term? Nobody really has answers. Is it even safe to plant a garden this year?
“We’re older. By the time you see the attorney ads on TV for people who lived in East Palestine during the train derailment, we’ll be dead. But what about the little kids around this town? What kind of effects will they have?”
In total, the train carried 115,580 gallons of vinyl chloride, a highly flammable carcinogen used to produce polyvinyl chloride (PVC) for packaging materials, piping and other products. During the controlled release, responders dug ditches to contain the liquid while it vaporized and burned. That effort was why the designated evacuation zone expanded to a 1-by-2-mile area, the report said.
The report was issued as the transport secretary, Pete Buttigieg, visited the area on Thursday and the US Environmental Protection Agency earlier in the week took control of the clean-up, ordered the US railroad company, Norfolk Southern, to foot the bill.
Buttigieg, who has come under criticism for not visiting the site of the crash sooner, said that Joe Biden’s administration will “never forget the people of East Palestine” but acknowledged that he wanted to visit, and “could have expressed that sooner”.
The NTSB said the crew did not receive a critical warning about an overheated axle but an engineer stopped the train after receiving a “critical audible alarm message” and the crew then saw fire and smoke and alerted dispatch of a possible derailment, the report said.
The axle investigators are focused on had been heating up as the train went down the tracks, but did not reach the threshold for stopping the train and inspecting it until just before the derailment, the report said.
The train was going about 47mph (75km/h) at the time, just under the speed limit of 50mph, according to safety investigators.
The US government is facing growing criticism over the federal response to the derailment.
The Biden White House has defended its response, saying officials from the EPA, NTSB and other agencies were at the rural site within hours of the derailment.
The White House says it has also offered federal assistance and the Federal Emergency Management Administration (Fema) has been coordinating with the state emergency operations center and other partners.
Buttigieg has faced criticism for not visiting the site earlier, including from former US president Donald Trump, who came to Ohio on Wednesday but has a record of rolling back environmental protections that was highlighted by critics.
Trump won nearly 72% of the vote in this heavily Republican region in the 2020 election.
The Department of Transportation said Buttigieg is visiting now that the EPA declared the emergency phase of the crash to be over and the start of long-term cleanup efforts is under way.
Heather Bable, who lives two blocks from the derailment site, said she’s relieved the government’s top brass is finally showing up.
“We need that attention because we weren’t getting it. They should have been here all along,” said Bable.
As remediation of the site continued, Norfolk Southern announced late Wednesday it had agreed to excavate the soil under two tracks. The Ohio governor, Mike DeWine, had called out the railroad company’s failure to address the contaminated soil underneath its tracks before repairing them and running freight again.
Democratic congressman Chris Deluzio, whose Pennsylvania district borders the East Palestine disaster site, asked Norfolk Southern to expand the boundaries of the geographic zone in which it is providing financial assistance and testing. He asserted the current zone excludes many affected Pennsylvania residents and businesses, and said the company should commit to cleaning up soil and water up to 30 miles beyond it.
He has accused the company of “failing to show any commitment to rebuilding lost trust in our community”.
The president of the Ohio senate, meanwhile, announced a public hearing on the derailment next week to hear testimony from state officials.
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