Norfolk Southern to Lead Effort on Post-Derailment Response Protocols Ahead of NTSB Hearing

by Anna

Days before the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is set to critique the first responders’ decision to blow open and burn five tank cars containing toxic chemicals after the East Palestine derailment, Norfolk Southern has announced a new initiative to improve industrywide decision-making processes in such scenarios.

This announcement comes as part of the railroad’s settlement with the federal government. The NTSB’s hearing on Tuesday will address the causes of the February 3, 2023 derailment and explore measures to prevent similar incidents in the future.


During the derailment, over three dozen railcars derailed, with 11 tank cars spilling hazardous materials that ignited. Three days later, responders opted to vent and burn five vinyl chloride tank cars to avert a potential explosion. This action led to massive fireballs and a thick plume of black smoke over East Palestine, Ohio, forcing half the town to evacuate and leaving residents worried about long-term health effects.


NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy informed Congress earlier this year that the vent and burn might have been unnecessary. Experts from OxyVinyls, the manufacturer of the vinyl chloride, were confident that the feared polymerization reaction inside the tank cars was not occurring.


However, Ohio’s governor, first responders, and hazardous materials experts on site believed an explosion was imminent, justifying their decision despite the risk of releasing cancer-causing dioxins.


Drew McCarty, president of the contractor Specialized Professional Services hired by Norfolk Southern, stated in a letter to the NTSB obtained by The Associated Press that there was conflicting input from OxyVinyls experts on the scene and from those in Dallas regarding the polymerization risk.

The chemical manufacturer, OxyVinyls, has refrained from commenting publicly on the matter, aside from their experts’ testimonies last spring, amidst ongoing lawsuits.

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw expressed hope that the industry can refine the decision-making process for vent and burn procedures, emphasizing the priority of community and responder safety.

“When a vent and burn procedure is being considered, the health and safety of surrounding communities and emergency responders is the top priority,” Shaw stated.

By announcing this initiative on Friday, Norfolk Southern may be positioning itself ahead of potential recommendations the NTSB could issue on Tuesday.

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