Train Derailment in Ohio Leads to Evacuation Due to Dangerous Chemical Release
The Governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine, has issued a warning of a “grave danger of death” in a two-state area around a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. The reason for the warning is the presence of five train cars carrying the hazardous chemical vinyl chloride. A “controlled release” of the chemical is planned for Monday to prevent a catastrophic explosion.
The evacuation zone has been expanded to a 1-mile-by-2-mile area and residents have been ordered to evacuate immediately. Breathing high levels of vinyl chloride can cause death and has been linked to an increased risk of cancer. Schools are closed and residents who stay face arrest.
According to DeWine, crews will attempt a “controlled release” of the dangerous chemical to prevent a potential explosion. The controlled release could last from one to three hours, but it is unclear when residents will be able to return to their homes.
The communication center for the East Palestine Police Department has also been evacuated due to the dangerous situation. Officials are urging residents to follow evacuation orders for their own safety.
An official from the Columbiana County Emergency Management Agency and a representative from Norfolk Southern told on Monday that one rail car has gained attention as its broken safety valves are preventing the discharge of vinyl chloride.
Authorities have been urging locals to evacuate the area for days as concerns about the air and water quality have increased. Those within a mile of the crash site are advised to leave immediately as the danger has heightened with the inferno burning for a third night on Sunday.
According to Columbiana County Sheriff Brian McLaughlin, the release of hazardous gas and/or an explosion is highly likely. “Please evacuate your families for your own safety,” he said.
Fire Chief Keith Drabick stated that a “significant change” involving the vinyl chloride was discovered on Sunday. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the accident, reported that five of the derailed cars were carrying the chemical.
The Ohio Department of Health warns that breathing excessive amounts of vinyl chloride may cause someone to pass out or even die if they don’t get fresh air.
The synthetic substance vinyl chloride, which is used to produce PVC, readily burns at room temperature and has been linked to an increased risk of liver, brain, lung, and blood cancers. It can also cause grogginess, sleepiness, and headaches.
According to the National Cancer Institute, if a water supply is contaminated with vinyl chloride, it can enter household air when used for showering, cooking, or washing.
Although the air and water quality were stable on Sunday, James Justice of the EPA’s Emergency Response warned that “things might change at any moment.”
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- • Risk of arrest for those who stay: According to a sheriff’s Facebook post, anyone who refuses to leave the evacuation zone may face arrest for a misdemeanor charge of misbehavior in an emergency. If there are children in a home that refuses to evacuate, additional penalties for endangering minors may apply, according to McLaughlin.
- • No entry to evacuation zone: Residents will not be allowed to return to the forced evacuation area for the foreseeable future. The town of East Palestine stated on Facebook on Monday, “As of 8am this morning, the 1-mile evacuation zone will be enforced and you will not be permitted to enter.” To keep the roads clear for emergency services, people outside the zone are urged to stay indoors and avoid travel, according to officials.
- • Relocation of Police Communications Hub: Due to the growing risk, the East Palestine Police Department’s communications center was relocated for security reasons, according to a spokeswoman who spoke. The department assured the public that 911 services would not be impacted.
- • School Closures: The East Palestine City School District has been closed for the rest of the week, citing a local state of emergency.
- • Mechanical Problem Discovered: The crew was informed of a problem before the disaster by an alarm that went off, according to a member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Despite using the emergency brake, approximately ten rail cars carrying hazardous materials derailed.
Consequences of a “Catastrophic Failure”
Officials have warned that a major explosion could occur in East Palestine, a community of about 5,000 people near the Pennsylvania border. Governor Mike DeWine, who sent Ohio National Guard soldiers to the scene on Sunday, explained that the risk was due to a drastic temperature shift in one of the rail cars.
“We now run the risk of that rail car failing catastrophically,” said DeWine. “Steps are being taken to prevent it from happening, but if it does occur, it will release phosgene gas and hydrogen chloride into the atmosphere.” He urged the approximately 500 residents who had stayed behind to leave immediately and warned that the risk radius around the derailment could expand in the case of an explosion.
Mechanical Failure Warning Received by Crew before Accident
According to NTSB Member Michael Graham, a mechanical failure warning was issued before the accident. The agency reported that more than 100 rail cars, about 10 of which were carrying hazardous materials, derailed.
“The crew received a warning from a wayside defect detector indicating mechanical trouble shortly before the derailment,” said Graham. The emergency brake was then applied.
According to Graham, investigators have located the derailment site and found video that appears to show “preliminary signs of mechanical concerns” on one of the railcar axles. The NTSB is currently investigating the cause of the potential flaw and how the crew, including an engineer, a conductor, and a conductor trainee, reacted.
Investigators have also requested information from Norfolk Southern regarding track inspections, locomotive and railcar inspections and maintenance, and train crew certifications.
The Federal Railroad Administration of the US Department of Transportation recognizes rail transport as the most secure mode of transporting dangerous goods in the country. The government states that the “vast majority of hazardous commodities transported by rail tank car every year arrive safely and without incident, and railways generally have an outstanding record in transporting hazardous shipments safely.”
Due to the ongoing fire, investigators have not yet been able to visit the crash scene. The timeline for cleaning up the area is unknown, and Graham stated that there is still a “hot zone” in the area. The NTSB anticipates a preliminary report on the derailment in four to six weeks.