As federal investigators visit the site of another Norfolk Southern train derailment in Ohio, the company vowed new safety measures in response to its toxic train wreck that ravaged the town of East Palestine.
Norfolk Southern will revamp its hot bearing detector network as part of a new six-point safety plan, the company announced Monday.
“Hot bearing” or “hot box” detectors use infrared sensors to record the temperatures of railroad bearings as trains pass by. If they sense an overheated bearing, the detectors trigger an alarm, which notifies the train crew they should stop and inspect the rail car for a potential failure.
After the February 3 toxic derailment in East Palestine, investigators discovered hot bearing sensors detected a wheel bearing heating up miles before it eventually failed – but didn’t alert the train’s crew until it was too late, according to a February 23 preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board.
Currently, the average distance between detectors on the Norfolk Southern network is 13.9 miles. On Monday, the company announced it would examine every area where the distance between detectors is greater than 15 miles and would develop a plan to deploy additional detectors where needed.
Norfolk Southern said other new safety measures would include:
• Working with manufacturers of “multi-scan” hot bearing detectors, which are able to “scan a greater cross-section of a railcar’s bearings and wheels” to accelerate development and testing.
• Adding 13 “acoustic bearing” detectors that analyze the acoustic signature of vibration inside the axle and would be able to identify potential problems that a visual inspection could not. These detectors would be added to “high-traffic” routes in Norfolk Southern’s core network.
• Collaborating with Georgia Tech to advance safety inspection technology using “machine vision and algorithms powered by artificial intelligence to identify defects and needed repairs.”
• Accelerating the installation of new inspection technology, including the use of high-resolution cameras stationed in strategic locations on its Premier Corridor, which is the train line that connects the Northeast and the Midwest and runs through East Palestine.
About 200 miles southwest of East Palestine, NTSB investigators arrived Monday in Springfield Ohio – where a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed Saturday.
Investigators will be “looking at the condition of the track, the mechanical condition of the train, operations, the position of the cars in the train, and signal and train control among other things,” the NTSB said in a statement. “They will also be collecting event recorder data, on-board image recorders, and will conduct interviews with the crew and other witnesses.”
Investigators with the agency are expected to release a preliminary report in two to three weeks.
The 212-car freight train was heading south through Clark County en route to Birmingham, Alabama, when 28 of its cars derailed – downing large power lines, knocking out power and temporarily prompting shelter-in-place orders for homes within 1,000 feet.
Crews later determined there were no spills from the derailed cars, and authorities said there was no environmental harm.
“There was no release of any chemical or any hazardous material to the soil, to the air, to the water,” Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Director Anne Vogel said Sunday.
The cause of the derailment remains under investigation, Norfolk Southern said.
Four of the derailed tank cars had previously been carrying diesel exhaust fluid and an additive commonly used in wastewater treatment, but they were empty when they derailed, Norfolk Southern General Manager of Operations Kraig Barner said.
“There’s always a small residual amount left in the tanks,” Smith told CNN. “The derailed tank cars are not hazardous.”
Those empty tankers carried residual product in “very minor amounts” that “dried very quickly,” Springfield Fire Assistant Chief Matt Smith said. He said his team checked the crash site and confirmed nothing had spilled onto the ground.
But one car was carrying PVC pellets that affected the soil at the crash site, Vogel said. She said that the EPA “will be onsite ensuring that as cars are removed by Norfolk Southern that the soil is not impacted under the ground.”
After the derailment, authorities sought to assure the community in Clark County that their air, water and soil are safe.
“Since there have been no releases, we’re looking at clean air, clean soil and clean water for our residents,” Clark County Health Commissioner Charles Patterson said. “Technicians will continue to be on site to ensure that there isn’t any contamination that has been missed.”
While the two recent train derailments in Ohio have made national news, data from the Federal Railroad Administration Office of Safety Analysis shows there have been at least 1,000 derailments in the United States each year during the past decade.
The process of removing soil from under the tracks at the East Palestine derailment site started Saturday, the federal Environmental Protection Agency said. The agency had ordered Norfolk Southern to remediate the site, including the excavation of potentially contaminated soil.
The work could take up to two months, depending on weather conditions and other unforeseen delays, the agency said. The EPA said nearby residents might notice additional odors during that time.
While the soil work is underway, Norfolk Southern has agreed to provide financial assistance to residents for various necessities, including temporary lodging, travel, food and clothing, the EPA said.
Impacts from the East Palestine derailment were also felt in other nearby communities in Pennsylvania, where Norfolk Southern has made an “initial agreement” to pay millions for damages there, officials said Monday.
The railroad will establish a $1 million community relief fund to support local businesses and residents impacted by the crash in Beaver and Lawrence counties, a news release from Gov. Josh Shapiro’s office said.
Norfolk Southern also agreed to pay $5 million to reimburse Pennsylvania fire departments that have to replace damaged or contaminated equipment after responding to the derailment, the release said. The agreement also includes money to cover some operating and response costs for Pennsylvania’s environmental protection, health and emergency management departments.
These payments would be separate from other “applicable legal obligations” that may be imposed, the release said.
Norfolk Southern earned a record $3.3 billion in net income last year, more than 400 times greater than the $7.4 million that Shapiro said the company agreed to pay to Pennsylvania communities.
The company spent $4.2 billion on share repurchases and dividends to shareholders and has plans to repurchase another $7.5 billion in shares going forward, or more than 1,000 times the initial amount it has promised to Pennsylvania.
The East Palestine derailment fueled outcry among residents who have reported headaches, coughing and other ailments after the fiery crash.
The train was hauling the dangerous chemical vinyl chloride and other chemicals that are feared to have leaked into the surrounding ecosystem.
Some employees who responded to the East Palestine crash site were not given proper protective equipment and have experienced migraines and nausea, the American Rail System Federation – a union for railroad workers – said in a letter last week.
Norfolk Southern said it had not received any reports of injury or illness from employees involved in the initial response.
“Norfolk Southern was on-scene immediately after the derailment and coordinated our response with hazardous material professionals,” the railroad said in a statement.
The company also said “required PPE was utilized, all in addition to air monitoring that was established within an hour.”