Toxic fumes are released from burning train that derailed in Ohio
By Christine Hauser and Livia Albeck-Ripka
A rail operator earlier this week released toxic fumes from several derailed train cars that they said were at risk of exploding in East Palestine, Ohio, after authorities ordered residents on both sides of the state’s border with Pennsylvania to evacuate to avoid a deadly threat.
The train derailed Friday night, with 50 of its 100 cars running off the tracks, igniting a fire that left much of the town in smoke and prompted repeated calls for evacuation.
“We are ordering you to leave,” Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio said Monday at a news conference. “This is a matter of life and death.”
He added that there was “grave danger” of inhaling fumes from chemicals produced by the release, which authorities identified as phosgene and hydrogen chloride. In high concentrations, both chemicals can cause severe and life-threatening respiratory issues.
The release of the fumes began late Monday afternoon and was “completed successfully,” Norfolk Southern, the rail operator, said in a statement Monday evening. The material was continuing to burn off, and was expected to “drain” for a number of hours, the operator said, adding that it would continue monitoring the air quality in the region together with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
Images posted to social media appeared to show fire and a toxic plume of black smoke billowing above East Palestine, a village of less than 5,000 people that is about 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. Residents crammed into emergency shelters, authorities said, and schools were closed for the week, according to a statement posted to Facebook by the East Palestine City School District.
The train, which had been traveling from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania, derailed at about 9 p.m. Friday in East Palestine. As of Monday afternoon, the fire appeared to still be burning, according to a spokesperson for the Ohio Emergency Management Agency.
Between 1,500 and 2,000 residents were asked to evacuate the area after the derailment, and DeWine issued an urgent evacuation notice Sunday night, addressing hundreds of residents who had declined to leave their homes within a 1-mile radius of where the cars were scattered. There have been no reports of injuries or deaths.
On Monday, the governor extended that evacuation order to include anyone in a 1-mile by 2-mile area surrounding East Palestine, which includes parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania. His office warned that the chemicals in the rail cars were “unstable and could potentially explode, causing deadly disbursement of shrapnel and toxic fumes.”
Firefighters worked to control the fire through the weekend, trying to keep the tanks cool and letting their contents burn off, as authorities warned that there could be an explosion.
Chief Keith A. Drabick, of the East Palestine Fire Department, said Saturday that the product that investigators were most worried about was vinyl chloride, a colorless and flammable gas that is toxic to people.
“The rail car that was carrying that is doing its job,” Drabick said. “The safety feature of that rail car is still functioning.”
But on Monday, officials with Norfolk Southern said that they planned to drain and “manually vent” some of the cars after their pressure-relief devices stopped working.
“This will be loud and visible,” the rail operator said. “Some of the material will burn off as it drains for a short number of hours.”
The venting plan was to involve five cars, at least one of which was carrying vinyl chloride, the company said. Pits and embankments were being prepared to catch the material, which will “then be remediated,” it said.
Drabick said at the news conference Monday that authorities would also shut down power in the area to add an “extra layer of safety.”
Officials from state and federal agencies have gathered at the site to investigate the cause of the derailment, work on the cleanup and monitor air quality. The National Transportation Safety Board was investigating, and Ohio’s highway patrol and its emergency management and environmental protection agencies had personnel at the scene as well. The governor deployed the Ohio National Guard.