An image of the March 2 train derailment. Photo by National Transportation Safety Board.
An image of the March 2 train derailment. Photo by National Transportation Safety Board.

N.T.S.B. report sheds new light on Lehigh River derailment

| March 26, 2024

A preliminary federal report released on Tuesday about the March 2 train derailment that led to the spills of diesel fuel and plastic pellets into the Lehigh River in Pennsylvania revealed new details about what happened.

Among the previously unreported circumstances outlined in the report by the National Transportation Safety Board:

Three of the derailed railcars were labeled as hazardous materials tankers. One was carrying ethanol residue and two had butane residue. The tankers were not breached and did not release any hazardous materials.

Seven crew members were transported to a hospital, where they were treated for minor injuries before being discharged.

Norfolk Southern, the operator of the rail line, estimated damages to equipment and track to be about $2.5 million.

The preliminary report describes a chain-reaction crash in Lower Saucon Township, Pa., about 10 miles east of Allentown, that left two derailed locomotives partially submerged in the Lehigh River, spilling locomotive diesel fuel into the water.

The Lehigh is a tributary to the Delaware River, which itself serves as the source of drinking water to more than 14 million people.

American Rivers last year ranked the Lehigh No. 7 among the nation’s top 10 most endangered rivers. The advocacy group cited a proliferation of warehouses and distribution centers, which bring more paved surfaces and dirtier, faster runoff, as major threats to the Lehigh.

Spills of plastic pellets

In addition to the diesel fuel, polypropylene plastic pellets spilled into the Lehigh, the Lower Saucon police chief, Thomas Barndt, said at a news conference.

Though booms were put in place to curb the spills, environmental groups noted that the pellets can contribute to microplastic pollution in waterways. The plastic pellets, also known as nurdles, can be as small as a lentil.

“Plastic pollution is everywhere. Fragments have been found at popular fishing spots in Alaska and in Pennsylvania’s top trout streams, on our beaches and in the Great Lakes,” Lisa Frank, executive director of Environment America’s Washington legislative office, said in a statement. “When animals ingest this plastic, they can get sick and die.”

Clean-water advocates have cited statistics that humans ingest the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of microplastic each week.

From 2018 to 2022, Northampton County, Pa., where the crash occurred, recorded 26 rail accidents or incidents resulting in 13 reported injuries and no fatalities, according to a hazard mitigation plan.

Crash involved three trains

The N.T.S.B. preliminary report described a Norfolk Southern freight train headed eastbound from Landers, Ill., to Elizabeth, N.J., that struck a stopped Norfolk Southern train that was headed from Atlanta, Ga., to Croxton, N.J. They were both on the same track.

As a result of that crash, three cars from the 39-car eastbound train derailed.

Less than a minute later, a westbound train that was headed from Croxton, N.J., to Enola, Pa., struck the derailed equipment, the report said.

As a result of that second crash, two locomotives and six cars of the 199-car westbound train derailed. Three of the derailed cars “were placarded as hazardous materials tank cars,” the N.T.S.B. said.

Shortly before the crashes, the Croxton-bound train had stopped because of train traffic, the report said. The Elizabeth-bound train was traveling at about 13 miles per hour at the time of the first crash and the Enola-bound train was going at about 22 m.p.h., below the maximum authorized speed, at the time of the second crash.

As part of its investigation, the N.T.S.B. said its investigators completed interviews; inspected locomotives and railcars; tested and downloaded data from control and signal systems; and sent data from radio logs, locomotive event recorders, and outward- and inward-facing image recorders to the National Transportation Safety Board Vehicle Recorder Laboratory for analysis.

Part of the continuing investigation will focus on Norfolk Southern rules, procedures, and crew training.

The N.T.S.B. said last year that it had opened a special investigation into safety practices at Norfolk Southern. In February 2023, the company was the operator of a line in East Palestine, Ohio, that was the site of a catastrophic train derailment. In that crash, dozens of freight cars with hazardous materials derailed and caught fire, enveloping the city with toxic smoke and contaminating drinking water supplies.

Chris Mele

Chris Mele

Chris Mele is a reporter and editor with more than 30 years of experience in news, specializing in investigative and enterprise reporting.

Leave a Comment