Officials said that nearly 2,000 people in eastern Ohio were still told to leave their homes on Monday while railroad workers drained and burned off a toxic chemical from five tanker cars of a freight train that derailed in a fire three days earlier.
As expected, the release of pressurized vinyl chloride, a highly flammable and cancer-causing gas, started with a single explosion. The rest of the cargo then burned steadily, said Sandy Mackey, a spokesperson for the Ohio Emergency Management Agency.
The Norfolk Southern Railroad train, which consisted of three locomotives and 150 freight cars, was traveling from Illinois to Pennsylvania when it derailed just before 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Friday. The derailment started a massive fire, which in turn forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes in the immediate area.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, around fifty cars actually got loose from their rails, twenty of which were carrying hazardous chemicals (NTSB).
The railroad reported on Sunday that pressure-relief systems on several tankers had stopped operating, which the business claimed may “result in a catastrophic breakdown.” This caused public safety concerns to grow to a new level, and the company apologized for the inconvenience.
In a statement, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine warned that the chemical contents of the five rail cars in question were “unstable and might potentially explode, causing fatal dispersal of shrapnel and toxic gases.” This was said in reference to the fact that the chemicals were being transported by rail.
On Monday, Norfolk Southern announced that, in collaboration with state and local emergency officials, it had developed a plan to manually vent the cars, therefore allowing the contents to escape “be drained in a controlled fashion” under supervision of “experts and first responders.”
As part of the plan, DeWine and Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro ordered that all homes within a 1- to 2-mile radius of where the train derailed on both sides of the state line be evacuated on Monday. Peggy Clark, a spokeswoman for the Columbiana County Emergency Management Agency, said that about 1,900 people on the Ohio side were forced to leave their homes.
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The office of DeWine warned that the venting operation could release fumes into the air that could be deadly if breathed in. These fumes could also burn the skin and cause serious lung damage.
According to the National Cancer Institute, vinyl chloride is a colorless gas that is made in factories. It burns easily and is mostly used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe and other products. It is also a byproduct of smoking cigarettes.
No details were given about how the crews got rid of the gas. But the railroad said that workers had set up drainage pits and berms, which seemed to be to keep the mess from spreading. It said that state environmental officials checked the air quality.
Nearly two hours after the operation started, the company said that the “controlled breach” had been “completed successfully.” The NTSB was still looking into what caused the derailment, but board member Michael Graham said on Sunday that video footage of the accident suggested that “mechanical problems on one of the rail car axles” might have been to blame.
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