Ohio train derailment: Crews will conduct ‘controlled release’ of hazardous chemicals to try to avoid explosion, officials say


[Breaking news update, published at 2:13 p.m. ET]

On Monday afternoon, crews will attempt a ‘controlled release’ of a dangerous chemical from the site of a burning train derailment that exposed residents near a stretch of the Ohio-Lawrence border. Pennsylvania at risk of catastrophic explosion, Gov. Mike DeWine said.

“We have decided that this controlled release will take place today at 3:30 p.m. ET,” DeWine said Monday. “We’re urging everyone in this area – in fact, ordering them – to leave.”

Crews will try to drain vinyl chloride from five train carriages into a trench in the ground, Norfolk Southern’s Scott Deutsch said. The cars derailed Friday in East Palestine, Ohio.

Following new modeling information, the governors of Ohio and Pennsylvania ordered immediate evacuations for a 1-by-2-mile area surrounding eastern Palestine, DeWine said.

[Original story, published at 1:36 p.m. ET]

A derailed train car carrying a dangerous chemical amid burning freight wreckage could be about to explode – releasing toxic gases while launching deadly shrapnel up to a mile away. distance, officials east of Ohio said.

A single railcar is now in focus because its faulty safety valves prevent the railcar from releasing the vinyl chloride inside, an official with the Columbiana County Emergency Management Agency and a spokesperson for Norfolk Southern.

As the wagon reaches dangerously high temperatures, crews in eastern Palestine are trying to figure out how to release its contents before it explodes, they told CNN.

Authorities pleaded with residents to leave the area for days as fears over air and water quality grew. The threat escalated as an inferno burned for a third night on Sunday, and those within a 1-mile radius of the crash site are urged to evacuate immediately.

“There is a high likelihood of toxic gas release and/or explosion,” Columbiana County Sheriff Brian McLaughlin warned. “Please, for your own safety, keep your families out of harm’s way.”

A “drastic change” was detected Sunday related to vinyl chloride, said fire chief Keith Drabick. Five of the derailed cars were carrying the substance, said the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the disaster.

Breathing in high levels of vinyl chloride can cause someone to pass out or die if they don’t get fresh air, the Ohio Department of Health said. The synthetic chemical used to make PVC burns easily at room temperature; may cause dizziness, drowsiness and headache; and has been linked to an increased risk of liver, brain, lung and blood cancer.

“If a water supply is contaminated, vinyl chloride can enter household air when the water is used for showering, cooking, or laundry,” says the National Cancer Institute.

While air and water quality remained stable on Sunday, “things can change at any time,” warned James Justice of the EPA’s emergency response.

Here is the latest news from the field:

• Residents who remain are at risk of arrest: Anyone who refuses to leave the evacuation zone could be arrested for misconduct in an emergency, the sheriff posted on Facebook. If there are children in a household that does not evacuate, “other child endangerment charges will also apply,” McLaughlin said.

• No one can return: Residents will not be permitted to return to the 1 mile evacuation zone for the foreseeable future. “As of 8am this morning – the 1 mile evacuation zone will be enforced and you will not be able to enter the evacuation zone,” the East Palestine Village posted on Facebook on Monday. Those outside the area are asked to stay indoors and avoid travel “to keep roads clear for emergency services”, officials said.

• Police Service Communication Center: The scene was so dangerous Monday morning that the Eastern Palestine Police Department evacuated a communications center for security reasons, a spokesperson told CNN by phone Monday. “The 911 service will not be affected,” the department said online.

• Schools are closed: Classes in schools in eastern Palestine and town hall meetings are canceled on Monday, the mayor said.

• A mechanical problem has been detected: The crew was alerted by an alarm shortly before the derailment “indicating a mechanical problem,” an NTSB member said. Emergency braking was applied, but about ten wagons carrying hazardous materials derailed.

East Palestine, a village of about 5,000 near the Pennsylvania border, could be the site of a devastating explosion, officials say.

Smoke from a derailed freight train lingers in a neighborhood in East Palestine, Ohio on Saturday.

The risk comes from an extreme temperature change inside one of the train cars, said Gov. Mike DeWine, who sent members of the Ohio National Guard to the scene on Sunday.

“We now risk a catastrophic failure of this container (train). Steps are being taken to try to control this and prevent this from happening,” Drabick said on Sunday. “This catastrophic failure, if it occurs, will produce hydrogen chloride and phosgene gas in the atmosphere.”

“We need you to leave now,” he told some 500 residents who had refused to leave as most of their neighbors evacuated. If there is an explosion, he warned, the radius of risk around the derailment could increase.

There was a mechanical failure warning before the crash, NTSB member Michael Graham said Sunday. About 10 of the 20 wagons carrying hazardous materials – out of more than 100 wagons in total – derailed, the agency said.

“The crew received an alarm from a wayside flaw detector shortly before the derailment, indicating a mechanical problem,” Graham said. “Then an emergency brake was triggered.”

Investigators also identified the point of derailment and found video showing “preliminary indications of mechanical issues” on one of the car’s axles, Graham said.

The NTSB is still investigating when the potential fault occurred and the response from the crew, which included an engineer, conductor and trainee conductor, Graham added.

Investigators also requested records from Norfolk Southern, including track inspection records, locomotive and wagon inspections and maintenance records, train crew records and qualifications, said Graham.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration of the United States Department of Transportation, rail transportation is recognized as the safest way to transport hazardous materials in the United States.

“The vast majority of hazardous materials shipped by tank car each year arrives safely and without incident, and railroads generally have an exceptional record of transporting hazardous materials safely,” the administration said.

Because the fire in Ohio is still burning, investigators were unable to walk to the crash site.

It is unclear how long it will take to clear the scene. “We still have a hot spot in there,” Graham said. He said the preliminary report on the derailment is expected in four to six weeks.


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