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The NTSB is holding hearings into the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Residents in East Palestine, Ohio, could finally get some answers about the disaster that upended their town in February.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

The National Transportation Safety Board today begins hearings to investigate just what caused the fiery train derailment, as well as the decision a few days later to vent and burn hazardous chemicals from the wreckage. Some residents are still displaced as the cleanup continues.

MARTÍNEZ: Julie Grant of The Allegheny Front attended a meeting held by the NTSB last night at East Palestine High School. Julie, who was there? What did people have to say?

JULIE GRANT: This was a meeting for the community. I counted about 70 or 80 people in the auditorium seats. NTSB chair Jennifer Homendy said at the investigative hearings, their goal will be to figure out what happened and why so they can issue safety recommendations. Homendy told residents they cannot testify at the hearings because those are meant to get specific questions answered. Since the incident, there have been many public meetings, and some people have been frustrated with environmental regulators, local and state leaders. But at this meeting, many seemed genuinely thankful to the NTSB, like Laurie Harmon, who remembered seeing Jennifer Homendy speak shortly after the derailment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAURIE HARMON: Everything that was being showed on TV, Facebook, whatever - it was not sincere. The day that I watched you on TV, I actually felt like there's actually an entity that is with us. With us - do you understand what I'm saying? Does everybody understand what I'm saying? Finally, I feel like one entity out of all of them was you, and what you said that day touched me very deeply.

MARTÍNEZ: So, Julie, what will the NTSB be looking at during these hearings?

GRANT: Well, this will build off a preliminary report the agency released in February. That report found that as the train approached East Palestine, the temperature on one wheel bearing got as high as 250 degrees Fahrenheit above the outdoor temperature. The rising temperature had been detected earlier on the route by a series of Norfolk Southern's hot bearing detectors. But investigators found that by the time the last detector picked up on that extreme heat, it was too late to stop the derailment. So the hearings this week will look at hot box systems, train wheel bearings, the preparation of emergency responders and at that decision to vent and burn chemicals in the tank cars. And among those testifying will be affected federal agencies, unions, Norfolk Southern and two other companies involved in the incident.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now, coming back to the people of East Palestine, is there anything that the NTSB can do for them?

GRANT: Yeah, that was the biggest question for some people. Someone asked if the hearings would be an exercise in futility. Homendy said the agency will issue safety recommendations, and then it would be up to the Department of Transportation to make new rules, and especially Congress, to mandate changes in railroad safety standards.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Julie Grant of The Allegheny Front. Julie, thanks for the information.

GRANT: Well, you're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Julie Grant