OH Train Derailment Chemical Release Successful
The derailment of a train carrying hazardous materials in East Palestine, Ohio, prompted evacuations as authorities worked to prevent an explosion in the tankers.
Emergency crews have since enacted a successful “controlled release” of the chemical as residents await to return home once it’s deemed safe and investigations continue into the cause of the accident.
At approximately 8:55 p.m. ET on Friday, Feb. 3, a train derailment occurred in East Palestine, Ohio, about 20 miles south of Youngstown and near the Pennsylvania order. About 50 of the 150 train cars had derailed, and of the 20 cars carrying hazardous materials, about 10 were affected.
Norfolk Southern reported the incident at 10:53 p.m. to the National Response Center. According to National Transportation Safety Board Member Michael Graham, the crew received a mechanical failure warning from a wayside defect detector before the derailment.
The NTSB is investigating the accident, requesting records from Norfolk Southern, including track inspection records, locomotive and railcar inspections and maintenance records, train crew records and qualifications.
Investigators also reportedly identified the point of derailment and found video showing “preliminary indications of mechanical issues” on one of the railcar axles, Graham said.
Officials are continuing to monitor the environmental impact caused by a derailed train carrying hazardous materials in Ohio. The crash led to a still-burning inferno that prompted evacuations, a shelter-in-place order and concerns about air quality. https://t.co/ljdhhsuJzq— CNN (@CNN) February 5, 2023
While no injuries were reported, the derailment resulted in a large fire, prompting evacuations of nearby residents within a mile radius. A shelter-in-place order was also issued for the entire remainder of the town.
While a variety of chemicals were being carried by the train, the chemical of “most concern” in the tankers was vinyl chloride, a carcinogenic gas that’s highly flammable and often used to produce polyvinyl chloride for pipes, wire coatings or plastic kitchenware.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deployed real-time air monitoring instruments in locations surrounding the fire and the neighboring community to monitor for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) including vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate, carbon monoxide, oxygen, hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen cyanide, phosgene and hydrogen chloride, as well as measuring the flammability of gases in the perimeter.
Additionally, the EPA worked to install booms and underflow dams to restrict the flow of contaminated water in two streams, Sulfur Run and Leslie Run.
Residents were again urged to evacuate on Sunday due to the risk of explosion. In a statement, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine noted that a “drastic temperature change” took place inside a rail car, with the potential for “catastrophic tanker failure.”
On Monday, Ohio National Guard and U.S. Department of Defense, DeWine and Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro ordered an immediate evacuation in a one-mile by two-mile surrounding area, citing that the vinyl chloride contents of five rail cars were unstable and could potentially explode.
Residents were warned that anyone in the “red” affected area would faced “grave danger of death,” and those in the yellow impacted areas were at high risk of severe injury, including skin burns and serious lung damage. Mayor Trent Conaway reported that everyone cleared out when officials went door-to-door.
Around 4:30 p.m. on Monday (Feb. 6), crews began a “controlled release” of the toxic chemicals from five of the tanker cars that were in danger of exploding. According to reports, flames and black smoke billowed in the sky from the derailment site during the operation. This was attributed to the slow release of vinyl chloride into a trough that was then ignited, creating a large plume.
The process reportedly 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. Scot Deutsch of Norfolk Southern said that performing the procedure during the day 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.
The release of vinyl chloride, a toxic, flammable gas used to produce vehicle interiors and PVC piping, was completed late Monday afternoon after evacuations were expanded from East Palestine, the site of the derailment, to an adjacent community. https://t.co/k28RRx2Av7— NBC News (@NBCNews) February 7, 2023
About three hours later, the railway issued a statement saying that experts and first responders had breached the rail cars, chemicals were burning off and the cars were expected to drain for several more hours.
At 7 p.m., the flames were reduced and a small fire continued in the pit. Deutsch told reporters that the remaining fires will go out on their own and won’t be extinguished by crews.
“The detonation went perfect and we're already to a point where the cars are safe,” Deutsch said. “They were not safe prior to this [controlled release].”
During the controlled burn, the EPA reported that air monitoring detected particulate matter resulting from the fire, but did not detect chemical contaminants of concern in the hours following the controlled burn. They have warned residents in the surrounding area that they may smell odors coming from the site, but the levels are much lower than what is considered hazardous.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the evacuation zone remained around the crash site. A team from the EPA is also continuously monitoring the air and water quality in the area, as well as working with Norfolk Southern, health departments and other responding agencies to develop procedures for safely reoccupying the evacuated areas.
Authorities also said at an afternoon press conference that fire pit is out and all five cars containing the vinyl chloride were no longer burning. Four of the cars have since been removed for further inspection by the NTSB, with crews waiting to move the last one.