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Toxic chemicals burn over Ohio derailment site during controlled release

Authorities performed a controlled release of toxic chemicals to avoid a large explosion on Feb. 7, four days after a train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. (Video: Storyful)
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Toxic fumes began billowing over northeastern Ohio on Monday afternoon as authorities aimed to mitigate a potential explosion from derailed tanker cars that were carrying hazardous materials.

The “controlled release” of vinyl chloride, a colorless compound that is a human carcinogen and can be deadly if inhaled, “involves the burning of the rail cars’ chemicals,” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) said in a statement Tuesday. The move — which prompted evacuations in Ohio and Pennsylvania — was directed to prevent a catastrophic explosion that could send shrapnel flying as far as a mile after Friday’s train derailment.

Residents living in the 1-by-2-mile area surrounding the derailment site in East Palestine — a town of nearly 5,000 people on Ohio’s eastern edge — were told to evacuate or face arrest. Exposure to the released substances could cause skin burns, lung damage or death, officials said. Law enforcement worked to clear the area ahead of the controlled release, but most people had already left, DeWine said.

“Depending on the exact amount of material currently inside the rail cars, the railroad estimates that the controlled release of chemicals could burn for [one to three] hours,” DeWine said. “It is unknown when residents will be able to return to their homes but an announcement will be made when it is safe to return.”

On Tuesday, a loud boom was heard shortly before a column of dark smoke rose into the air from the raging fire below, according to local news outlets. The plume was thick enough to be caught by the satellite of the National Weather Service Cleveland.

The site has been ablaze since Friday, when about 50 cars from a 141-car Norfolk Southern train derailed about 9 p.m. At least five of the tanker cars were carrying hazardous chemicals, preventing firefighters from safely putting out the fire.

The derailment was probably caused by mechanical problems with one of the train car’s axles, National Transportation Safety Board member Michael Graham said on Sunday.

Videos show the train had a mechanical problem, Graham added. Crew members said an alarm indicating a possible mechanical problem went off just before the train derailed. Then an emergency brake activated and crew members stopped the train. No injuries were reported.

Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency said they are monitoring the chemicals that could spill from the wreckage — including phosgene, a chemical weaponized during World War I that can be used to make pesticides, and vinyl chloride, which is used to create the plastic that coats wires, cables and car parts. The agency is also keeping a watch on chemicals that are produced by combustion, such as hydrochloric acid, which can irritate or damage the skin or respiratory tract.

Fears over the chemicals contaminating the community’s resources have mounted for the residents of East Palestine. Many have reported a pungent smell in the air and say they are concerned about chemicals penetrating the town’s water sources, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

The Columbiana County Emergency Management Agency said it was “improbable” that chemicals would spill into water sources given the derailment’s location. The agency will continue evaluating air quality and sample water from a nearby stream, Sulphur Run.

The cars carrying the toxic chemicals will be moved to a safe location for further analysis, though investigators don’t yet have a time frame for cleaning up the derailment site. That process, officials said, could be delayed until the area is considered safe to approach. Until then, officials have implored residents to stay away.

“You need to leave, you just need to leave. This is a matter of life and death,” DeWine said at a news conference Monday.