Officials from the National Transportation Safety Board investigating the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, are collecting and examining evidence related to the crash, which placed the small town at significant risk due to the presence of industrial chemicals on the vehicle.
Local and state authorities evacuated all residents within one mile of the February 3 crash and started a controlled burn of the volatile chemicals to decrease the risk of an explosion. Vinyl chloride, a carcinogen used to manufacture PVC, was released from five train cars in the form of massive plumes of dark smoke visible throughout eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania.
In a Tuesday press release, NTSB officials said that a total of 38 cars derailed, while a fire damaged 12 additional cars. The train carried a total of 20 hazardous material cars, 11 of which derailed. The agency said it “continues to work with the investigative parties to determine what exactly caused the derailment and to evaluate the emergency response efforts.”
The investigators have started to examine the car which caused the derailment. “Surveillance video from a residence showed what appears to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment,” the press release continued. “The wheelset from the suspected railcar has been collected as evidence for metallurgical examination.”
Video footage obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette showed that the Norfolk Southern train had traveled more than 20 miles with the malfunctioning rail car axle, which appeared to have been on fire or shooting sparks. NTSB Member Michael Graham previously confirmed during a news conference that there were “preliminary indications of mechanical issues” for the axle, according to a report from CBS Pittsburgh.
NTSB officials also collected the top fittings and relief valves for the vinyl chloride tank cars. The wheel bearings will be sent to Washington, D.C., for examination, while the fittings will be evaluated at an NTSB facility in Texas. The tanks themselves will be examined in Ohio by NTSB officials after they are decontaminated.
Beyond the release of vinyl chloride, Norfolk Southern warned the EPA that a number of other volatile industrial chemicals were spilled at the derailment site. One train car containing ethylene glycol monobutyl ether currently has an “unknown status,” according to Norfolk Southern, while the amount of ethylhexyl acrylate in another car is still “pending.” The EPA issued the full list of substances present at the site after residents were told they could safely return to their homes.
Governor Mike DeWine (R-OH) told journalists at a press conference that air tests conducted by members of the Ohio National Guard sent into the derailment area with protective gear purportedly showed that the air quality was “basically what it was prior to the actual train crash.” Residents have nevertheless reported concerning health issues in the days after the controlled burn: one first responder said in an interview with The Daily Wire that he and other emergency personnel experienced “bad cough, headaches, sore throat, and diarrhea.” He added that he has “heard stories about dead fish being found in the basin near the crash scene.”
Senator J.D. Vance (R-OH) also said in a statement that he has heard “alarming anecdotes about contaminated waterways and effects on wildlife.” Videos and articles appearing to show sick and deceased animals near East Palestine have circulated in the days since the incident.