EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (WJW) — A train derailment in East Palestine, which spilled toxic chemicals, may have been caused by an overheating wheel bearing, according to federal investigators.

The National Transportation Safety Board in an investigative update released Tuesday, Feb. 14, cited surveillance footage of the train captured at a residence that indicates one of its wheel bearings was “in the final stage of overheat failure” moments before the derailment. That wheel bearing was on the car that “initiated the derailment,” according to the release.

Thirty-eight train cars derailed just before 9 p.m. on Feb. 3, sparking a fire that damaged another dozen cars, according to the report. Ten of those derailed cars were carrying hazardous material including vinyl chloride and three other chemicals that weren’t initially announced. Here’s a full list of what the train was carrying.

In surveillance footage taken about 45 minutes before the incident near the Salem business Butech Bliss, the undercarriage of the train can be seen glowing. Salem is about 20 miles northwest of East Palestine in Columbiana County.

The suspected overheated wheel bearing has been collected for examination at an NTSB laboratory. The railcar’s wheelset has also been collected. Investigators also expect to examine the tank cars once they have been decontaminated, according to the release.

The board continues to work with investigators from various state and federal entities to determine what caused the derailment and “evaluate the emergency response efforts,” reads the release.

‘This is absurd’

Gov. Mike DeWine in a Tuesday afternoon press conference said he was told by state utilities regulators that the train was not considered to be a “high hazardous material” train, since most of its cars were not carrying such material. That means the railroad operator Norfolk Southern was not required to notify locals about the materials in the railcars.

“Frankly, if this is true — and I’m told it’s true — this is absurd, and we need to look at this and Congress needs to take a look at how things are handled,” DeWine said.

To avoid a potentially “catastrophic” explosion of one of the damaged cars containing vinyl chloride, state officials decided to conduct a controlled burn of the material inside the car to relieve its building pressure, causing a dark black cloud to rise above the town. Air quality monitoring after the release showed the air was “what it was prior to the actual train crash,” DeWine said. After that, residents were allowed to return home.

DeWine said Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw told him the company is committed to remaining on-site until the cleanup was finished.

“Norfolk Southern is responsible for this problem,” the governor said Tuesday. “We fully expect them to live up to what the CEO committed to me — that they will pay for [the residents’ damages]. If we don’t, we have an attorney general who will file a lawsuit.

“I understand people’s skepticism. I understand their anger. If I lived in the community, I’d be angry too. The railroad caused this problem. They’re gonna be held accountable.”

Tracking the pollution plume

Officials are now tracking the plume of contaminants released after the initial spill, which is now slowly moving south along the Ohio River, and believed to be near Huntington along the state’s southernmost tip, said Tiffani Kavalec, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s chief of surface water.

EPA teams detected low levels of volatile organic compounds along about 7 1/2 miles of streams, the agency said Tuesday, which were found to be dissipating the farther they travel downstream.

“The Ohio River is very large and it’s a water body that’s able to dilute the pollutant very quickly,” Kavalec said.

The monitoring allows officials to call for closing of drinking water intakes as the plume flows, she said.

“We’re pretty confident these low levels are not getting passed onto the customers,” Kavalec said, later adding, “The farther it heads down the Ohio, the less risky it is. We would not envision anything from this point forward impacting any of the further drinking water supplies.”

Officials in Summit County and Akron said Tuesday the risk of water contamination reaching the area is “extremely low,” since the area is in the upper Cuyahoga River watershed.

“While this was a major life disrupting event for those who live in that area, the air pollution from the events was transported to the south and east by the winds,” Sam Rubens, administrator of Akron Regional Air Quality Management District, is quoted in a Tuesday news release. “We live about 60 miles west and north of the scene, so no air pollution was brought our way. We have no concerns about the pollutants locally. There is no action that needs to be taken by our local residents.”

Ohio Department of Natural Resources recorded about 3,500 dead fish from 12 different species along contaminated waterways — mostly small suckers, minnows, darters and sculpin. None of the species are threatened or endangered, said Director Mary Mertz.

Those residents whose private water wells may have been contaminated by the spill are urged to have them tested and stick to drinking only bottled water. Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff said residents can call Norfolk Southern at 330-849-3919 for free testing.

There are also several other independent laboratories in Ohio that are certified to test for volatile organic compounds. Here’s a list.

“Since the initial derailment, EPA has led robust air-quality testing (including with the state-of-the-art ASPECT plane) in and around East Palestine,” reads a statement from the U.S. EPA Great Lakes Division. “At this time, our air monitoring has not detected any levels of health concern that can be attributed to the incident.”

President Joe Biden’s press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in a White House briefing Tuesday said the federal government is working “hand-in-glove” with Ohio officials, leading air and water quality testing efforts.

“The EPA will continue to conduct 24/7 air quality monitoring throughout the East Palestine community in the days to come,” she said.

Legal action

More than 100 residents have contacted a Cleveland attorney who is originally from East Palestine and whose family still lives in the evacuation zone.

Attorney Grant MacKay says he’s getting involved in the case out of concern for his own mother’s welfare and his hometown. 

“There are so many traumatic injuries,” said MacKay. “It’s more than just animals, there are physical injuries of people on the ground and the closer to the incident, the worse they are right now.”

He says he’s received reports of increased emergency room visits and people suffering from severe headaches, respiratory issues, prolonged nosebleeds and tingly lips.

“These people need to be checked out and the ability to make sure they’re safe,” said MacKay.

The Cleveland area attorney and lawyers with the nationally recognized firm MotleyRice will be in East Palestine Wednesday. They are meeting with residents at 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. at the American Legion Hall.

MotleyRice is known for winning multi-million dollar settlements in contamination exposure cases, including but not limited to asbestos and big tobacco.

MacKay says something needs to happen because he doesn’t believe people are being told the entire truth about the severity of the situation.

He points to the railroads’ initial handling of contaminated soil and wonders what else they’re hiding.

“You bury it, you put gravel on it? They got the rails up and running right away, then they go back and try to remediate the soil after they should’ve already done it,” said MacKay. “It doesn’t make us feel safe, especially considering what happened here.”