Preliminary report card for the NTSB in East Palestine
As a retired sale engineer for industrial pressure relief devices, I have been following the investigation of the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio on February 3, 2023. I have watched the news accounts, plus the state and federal hearings. I have heard the political finger-pointing. I think that to make rail transport of hazardous freight less dangerous, there need to be changes. But what seems to be missing is a cross-examination of the work of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). It has a well earned reputation for after-the-fact analysis of transportation accidents. But it should not be the final arbiter.
For starters, let's consider the difference between prospective and retrospective viewpoints. A key question to review is whether the decision on Feb. 6, 2023, to conduct a "Vent and Burn" of the vinyl chloride in five DOT-105 tank cars, was the best option. It seems that the governor and senators of Pennsylvania think it was a bad decision. Note that Chairwoman Jennifer Homendy was quick to state that despite having three NTSB expert investigators on site in East Palestine, they played no role in the decision-making. She knows a hot potato when she sees one.
To Ms. Homendy's credit, she was the first person I heard who used the engineering term of art "Vent and Burn" rather than a "controlled burn." What she omitted is the fact that the Federal Railroad Administration is the subject matter "expert" and publishes a handbook on the process. She has also failed to note that the FRA has an associate administrator for rail safety and chief safety officer, Karl Alexy.
His bio states:
In 2012, Mr. Alexy became Staff Director of the FRA's Hazardous Materials Division and led efforts, in coordination with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration, to develop the regulation on Enhanced Tank Car Standards and Operational Controls for High-Hazard Flammable Trains."
That seems to be right on point for this discussion. Forget "Mayor" Pete Buttigieg; let's hear from someone who has worked in the private sector and knows the differences between flammable liquids and flammable gases, a test Homendy pointed out in a tweet that Mayor Pete failed. Vinyl chloride is a flammable gas.
Homendy also provided some weak support for Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw's statement that the local on-scene commander and his colleagues had reviewed the options and that of the three in the FRA handbook, the vent and burn was the one they collectively chose. They faced a dilemma. The vent and burn clearly would be preferable to "hot tapping" the tank cars.
It seems that the proper course of action would be to avoid the dilemma in the first place, rather than second-guessing the choice that was made. If the train had not derailed, there would have been no dilemma.
The quest for improved safety has come to focus on "trending" defect detectors. A trending detector would note that the temperature of the overheating wheel bearing on Car 23 had shown an increase as it passed two successive detectors. That is an excellent solution, but it too has its limitations. A key factor would be how much distance there would be in which to bring the train to a stop before reaching a populated area. Mr. Shaw testified that the railroad had installed a new detector outside the confines of the village of East Palestine. That would allow the train to stop in time. The NTSB has played cute on the question of how much distance there was between the third detector and the site of the derailment. The short answer is about 4,000 feet, which at a speed of 47 mph would give the train crew about one minute to stop. Note that if they cut the stopping distance it would have left the train closer to the center of the village!
Here is a Google Maps view of the general location with the third defect detector visible about 100 feet from the East Palestine Fire Department and the derailment by the Ceram Fab building, which is prominent in the photos of the wreck. It is the blue building with the white roof.
Here is a YouTube video by "Voyages of the Electric Car" that shows the detector and the wrecked cars in the same frame. Note that the train was over 9,300 feet long.
If the train had magically stopped on a dime, it is possible that the fire department would not have been able to get to their trucks due to the smoke and flames from the burning plastic pellets in Car 23. That would have only made matters worse. And clearly, those solid plastic pellets are neither flammable gas nor flammable liquid. They are, however, combustible. But that is a discussion for another day.