Crew members on the freight train that derailed in Ohio earlier this month, unleashing a huge blaze and spreading dangerous chemicals, tried to slow and stop the train after seeing an alert about an overheating wheel bearing, but it came off the tracks, according to an interim report released on Thursday by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
The train engineer put the brakes on and the automatic braking system activated, the report said, but it was revealed that a wheel bearing had been heating up for a considerable time before the train reached the town of East Palestine, near the Pennsylvania state line.
Fifty of the train’s cars derailed, carrying huge quantities of toxic chemicals, prompting an evacuation order and a declaration of a state of emergency in the Ohio village.
The report was issued as the transport secretary, Pete Buttigieg, visited the area on Thursday and federal environmental regulators earlier in the week took control of the clean-up, ordered the US railroad company, Norfolk Southern, to foot the bill.
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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