EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — The National Transportation Safety Board has released an update on its investigation into the train derailment in East Palestine.
The wreck occurred on Feb. 3, when a 150-car Norfolk Southern freight train came off the tracks and caught fire. Due to the potential for an explosion, officials evacuated everyone within a one-mile radius and conducted a "controlled release" of hazardous chemicals, but even with residents allowed to return home, environmental and safety concerns remain.
"NTSB is conducting a safety investigation to determine the probable cause of the derailment and issue any safety recommendations, if necessary, to prevent future derailments," the board said in a statement. "The NTSB can also issue urgent recommendations at any point during the investigation."
While investigators have not issued a final ruling, they continue to point to wheel failure as the likely cause of the crash. According to the NTSB, surveillance video from a nearby home showed one of the cars' wheels overheating prior to the accident, and that wheelset is now undergoing further examination.
Authorities have not said why the train may have continued onward despite the fire. 3News NBC affiliate WPXI in Pittsburgh obtained the TikTok video appearing to show the bearing in flames.
Of the rail cars being pulled, the NTSB says 20 were carrying some sort of hazardous material, with 10 of those being among the 38 in total that derailed. In the immediate aftermath of the crash, most of the concern surrounded five tanker cars filled with vinyl chloride, which is used in a variety of plastic products and could bring an increased risk of liver cancer and other cancers with prolonged exposure.
Due to the potential for an uncontrolled and dangerous explosion, Norfolk Southern breached the cars in order to vent and burn off the gas. The ensuing blast sent a cloud of black smoke into the air, but crews with the U.S. and Ohio Environmental Protection Agency indicated no issues with the air quality outside the evacuation zone, and this week federal officials claimed neither vinyl chloride nor hydrogen chloride were detected in any of the more than 200 homes tested inside that one-mile area.
In its notice of potential liability to the Norfolk Southern Railway, the EPA acknowledged various other hazardous chemicals that were on the train. Of the other concerning cars involved in the crash, the NSTB believes at last three may have been breached, with materials including ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, and butyl acrylate.
Full list of cars and their loads:
While authorities say the air quality is safe, residents in the village of less than 5,000 have questioned the long-term effects of the derailment and continue to complain of odors. Water quality in the area is also potentially "at risk," and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimates 3,500 fish died because of the accident. Testing remains ongoing.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine — who authorized the evacuation, the controlled release, and the return of residents in conjunction with village leaders — spoke more on the matter Tuesday and vowed to hold Norfolk Southern accountable. Besides the wheels, the NTSB says it is also decontaminating and testing the rail cars as well as reviewing event recorder data from the lead locomotive's cab. A preliminary report is expected in about two weeks.