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Hearing on East Palestine, Ohio, train disaster focuses on emergency response

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The National Transportation Safety Board is holding two days of hearings in East Palestine, Ohio, to surface critical information about how a freight train derailed in February. That led to fires and a chemical plume that could be seen for miles. Cleanup continues, and some residents are still displaced. Among those testifying are employees of Norfolk Southern, the company which operated the derailed train, along with local emergency responders, unions and transportation experts. The Allegheny Front's Julie Grant has been covering the hearing and joins us now. Hi, Julie.

JULIE GRANT, BYLINE: Hi there.

SUMMERS: So, Julie, tell us. What is the focus, then, of today's hearing?

GRANT: Well, the first day of hearings is focusing on emergency response efforts, including the way that responders communicated about what was going on right after it happened, and the decision to vent and burn five cars filled with the chemical vinyl chloride. That's what led to the plume that left many residents worried for the environment and their health. There were questions about why first responders didn't have quick and easy information about the contents of the derailed train cars, which they needed to react properly. NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy asked Norfolk Southern's Scott Deutsch why it took so long for the East Palestine Fire Department to get that information.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENNIFER HOMENDY: How is it that Norfolk Southern could provide the contractors responsible for cleanup with the information within 12 minutes of the derailment and took an hour to several hours before providing it to emergency responders?

GRANT: So Deutsch said he could not explain the time frame, but getting this information to first responders matters. If they'd known what chemicals were burning in those train cars, they would have known not to stand nearby, trying to douse it. Emergency responders also brought up that they needed more training and funding if they're going to be prepared to respond to events like this.

SUMMERS: OK. And this morning before the hearing, NTSB released thousands of pages of documents. From what you've had a chance to read through so far, what's stood out to you?

GRANT: Well, the documents included the transcript of an interview with East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick. He's the only professional staff member at the otherwise volunteer local fire department, and he was put in charge of giving the go-ahead to vent and burn vinyl chloride when the temperature started rising in one of the tank cars. There were concerns about an unplanned explosion if that didn't happen. He said he was told by one of the members of Norfolk Southern's Emergency Response team that he had just 13 minutes to decide. Drabick says he got blindsided and felt overwhelmed but that he ultimately approved it. He also says he didn't have training from Norfolk Southern in hazardous material emergency response. And so this raises questions about the system that's in place for making decisions in cases like this.

SUMMERS: OK. So we've got Day 1 of the hearing, and there are two days. What do we expect tomorrow?

GRANT: Yeah. Tomorrow they'll be looking at what actually caused the train to derail. So that means wheel bearings, why they fail, how often that happens and how to prevent it and also industry standards for detector systems along the railways. NTSB will also take a closer look at tank car standards and when it's appropriate to vent and burn chemicals from them.

SUMMERS: So, Julie, ultimately, what is expected to come out of these hearings?

GRANT: Yeah, well, NTSB is purely investigative, and what they do is make safety recommendations. So they're doing this assessment to figure out what sorts of new recommendations they might have to make. That could include things like training for first responders, emergency communication protocols or new kinds of labeling for tank cars carrying hazardous materials. But ultimately, it will be up to the Department of Transportation to create new rules or Congress to mandate these recommendations.

SUMMERS: Julie Grant of the Allegheny Front. Thanks so much.

GRANT: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAYTRANADA'S "WEIGHT OFF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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