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Crews release toxic chemicals from derailed train cars in Ohio

Derailed train prompts evacuations over explosion risk
Authorities conduct "controlled release" of toxic chemicals in train derailment 02:17

Crews released toxic chemicals into the air from five derailed tanker cars that were in danger of exploding Monday after officials warned residents near the Ohio-Pennsylvania state line to leave immediately or face the possibility of death.

Flames and black smoke billowed high into the sky from the derailment site late in the afternoon, about an hour after authorities said the controlled release would begin. The Ohio Emergency Management Agency confirmed the release was underway.

Vinyl chloride was slowly released from five rail cars into a trough that was then ignited, creating a large plume above the village of East Palestine. but authorities said they were closely monitoring the air quality.

The Emergency Management Agency of nearby Mahoning County, Ohio tweeted early Tuesday that the Ohio and federal Environmental Protection agencies "completed air sampling throughout Mahoning County & did not read any reportable levels of contaminates in the air."

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine earlier ordered evacuations in the area of the derailment that has been smoldering since Friday night. Authorities believe most, if not all, residents in the danger zone have left but they were knocking on doors one more time before releasing the vinyl chloride inside the cars, he said.

"You need to leave, you just need to leave. This is a matter of life and death," DeWine said on Sunday.

Following the start of the controlled release, DeWine said the incident was still an "ongoing event" and that the evacuation order was not expected to be lifted Monday night. He said residents followed the evacuation order and no arrests were made.

Officials said during a press conference that in order for crews to safely return to the evacuation area to begin cleaning it up, the metal needed to cool down. Once that happens, crews will start the "wrecking" process, in which the cars are moved off the tracks and relocated to a safe area where they'll be looked at by National Transportation Safety Board officials.

Officials said that although it was the last option, the detonation went "perfect."

Train Derailment Ohio
A black plume and fireball rise over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk and Southern trains Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. Gene J. Puskar / AP

At a separate press conference, Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro said that following the controlled vent and burn, no concerning air or water quality readings had been detected as of Monday night.

Shapiro thanked residents for heeding evacuation orders.

"I want to thank the good people of Pennsylvania for listening to the important information coming from our first responders, law enforcement and our environmental protection agencies," Shapiro said.

He said that, out of an abundance of caution, residents who live within two miles of the derailment should continue to shelter in place and keep their windows and doors closed.

Officials warned the controlled burn would send phosgene and hydrogen chloride into the air. Phosgene is a highly toxic gas that can cause vomiting and breathing trouble and was used as a weapon in World War I.

Scott Deutsch of Norfolk Southern Railway said doing this during the daytime would allow the fumes to disperse more quickly and prevent the rail cars from exploding and sending shrapnel and other debris from flying through the neighborhood.

"We can't control where that goes," said Deutsch, who estimated the release would take from one to three hours.

The process involves using a small charge to blow a hole in the cars, allowing the material to go into a trench and burning it off before it's released in the air, he said. The crews handling the controlled release have done this safely before, Deutsch said.

The site is very close to the state line, and the evacuation area extends into a sparsely populated area of Pennsylvania. About half of the 4,800 residents in East Palestine had been warned to leave over the weekend before officials decided on Monday to use the controlled release.

Train Derailment Ohio
A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of the controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk and Southern trains Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. Gene J. Puskar / AP

Shapiro said the evacuation zone includes about 20 Pennsylvania residences. Pennsylvania State Police went door-to-door to assist the last remaining residents and ensure they leave.

"This is very serious," he said. "I want you to know that if I were there right now, if the First Lady and our children were there right now, we would evacuate. We would leave this area. It is potentially too dangerous."

Forced evacuations began Sunday night in the village of East Palestine after authorities became alarmed that the rail cars could explode after a "drastic temperature change" was observed in a rail car.

Residents were packing overnight bags, loading their pets into cars and searching for hotel rooms Monday morning. Police in the village moved out of their communication center as the threat of an explosion increased.

Police cars, snow plows and military vehicles from the Ohio National Guard blocked streets leading into the area.

About 50 cars, including 10 carrying hazardous materials, derailed in a fiery crash Friday night, according to rail operator Norfolk Southern and the National Transportation Safety Board. No injuries to crew, residents or first responders were reported.

Five were transporting vinyl chloride, which is used to make the polyvinyl chloride hard plastic resin in plastic products and is associated with increased risk of liver cancer and other cancers, according to the federal government's National Cancer Institute

Federal investigators say the cause of the derailment was a mechanical issue with a rail car axle.

The three-member train crew received an alert about the mechanical defect "shortly before the derailment," Michael Graham, a board member of the NTSB, said Sunday. Investigators identified the exact "point of derailment," but the board was still working to determine which rail car experienced the axle issue, he said.

Mayor Trent Conaway, who declared a state of emergency in the village, said one person was arrested for going around barricades right up to the crash. He warned people to stay away and said they'd risk arrest.

"I don't know why anybody would want to be up there; you're breathing toxic fumes if you're that close," he said.

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