Date: Tuesday, February 7, 2023
Source: Wall Street Journal
A team of experts released a chemical from five tanker cars and ignited it Monday afternoon to prevent a potentially catastrophic explosion following a train derailment Friday along the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine maintained a mandatory evacuation Monday for residents within a one-mile radius of East Palestine, an Ohio village of nearly 5,000 people, after 50 cars of a Norfolk Southern Corp. train derailed Friday at about 9 p.m., causing a chemical fire. Rising temperatures in one car had posed a risk of an explosion, the governor said.
A team led by Norfolk Southern set charges on five tanker cars to drain vinyl chloride—a colorless gas that can easily burn and is used to make polyvinyl chloride hard-plastic resin—into a trench, where the chemical was ignited with flares and burned off. A column of black smoke rose from the site, darkening the sky above East Palestine.
Norfolk Southern said the chemical was expected to burn for several hours, and it said the company would continue to monitor air quality with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. It said remediation work at the derailment site would continue.
Mr. DeWine, and Gov. Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania, had both urged residents to leave the area earlier on Monday.
“Everybody in Pennsylvania and Ohio who’s in this area, you need to leave,” Mr. DeWine said. “You just need to leave. We’re ordering you to leave. This is a matter of life and death.”
Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro also urged residents to leave the area. He said people in the immediate area risked death, while people slightly further out risked permanent lung damage.
Officials said one of the chemicals of concern created by the controlled burn would be phosgene. They said the charges would all have to be set at the same time, to release the vinyl chloride from two full cars, each containing 177,000 pounds of vinyl chloride, and three half-full cars.
Mr. DeWine said earlier that a drastic temperature change in one tanker car “could cause an explosion with the potential of deadly shrapnel traveling up to a mile.” He said that about 500 people living within a 1-mile radius of the derailment had previously declined to leave their homes, and he activated the Ohio National Guard to assist local authorities.
The National Transportation Safety Board said the eastbound train included 141 load cars, nine empty cars and three locomotives. It departed Madison, Ill., and was headed to Conway, Pa., when it derailed.
The safety board said at a Sunday news conference that the train’s three-member crew was alerted to a mechanical defect before the derailment. It said an emergency brake was then activated.
A spokesman for Norfolk Southern referred questions about the derailment to the NTSB. He said the company had opened a family assistance center for residents displaced from their homes. The company said it was supporting efforts of the American Red Cross and their temporary community shelters through a $25,000 donation.
The accident occurred on a line that serves a major Norfolk hub in nearby Conway, one of the largest freight rail yards in the U.S.
Norfolk Southern informed customers to expect delays of at least 24 hours on several routes, including trains running between Chicago and the Northeast; from Kansas City to the Northeast; as well as from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to the Midwest.
Norfolk Southern said in an alert to customers that there was no estimate when service would be returned to the route and it was using alternative routes to minimize delays but those trips would take longer than originally planned.
The company said it had employees on the scene along with derailment and environmental contractors. It said it was working with first responders, and coordinating with federal, state and local agencies. Schools and other city facilities were closed Monday.
Cars involved in the derailment contained vinyl chloride, combustible liquids, benzene residue and nonhazardous materials, such as plastic pellets and wheat, according to information posted to the Facebook page of the Columbiana County Emergency Management Agency.
Environmental groups said the train derailment and other recent accidents in the region often tied to petrochemicals, including a natural gas compressor station fire in December and six other train derailments since 2021, are putting residents at risk.
“It is time to put an end to the health, safety and economic risks to people in this region by shifting priorities away from building out this hazardous infrastructure to a healthier and more prosperous one,” said Matt Mehalik, executive director of the Breathe Project.
Vinyl chloride is used to make a plastic called PVC, which is used to make pipes and packing materials, among other things, according to the Ohio Department of Health. The department said the chemical is listed as carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
Phosgene, a poisonous gas at room temperature, is used to create plastics and pesticides, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Phosgene was used extensively during World War I during which it was responsible for many deaths, according to the CDC. Symptoms of exposure include coughing, blurred vision, nausea and difficulty breathing; some effects can be delayed and might not be apparent for up to 48 hours.
East Palestine’s mayor, Trent Conaway, had said that local drinking water wasn’t affected, and he had urged people to stay away from the derailment.
“It’s a very volatile situation and could turn into a dangerous situation if everything doesn’t go the way it’s supposed to,” the mayor said.
The NTSB said five cars were carrying vinyl chloride. Officials had previously reported 14 cars were carrying the chemical.
Kurt Kollar, with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s office of emergency response, had said that officials were monitoring chemicals that reached some nearby streams, but said there was no current risk to the area’s drinking water.
The NTSB is leading the investigation into the crash. Michael Graham, an NTSB member, said previously that the fire spanned the length of the derailment.
No injuries have been reported, but Mr. Conaway and other emergency officials warned Sunday that people need to remain clear of the area. At least one person was arrested Saturday night after making their way to the crash scene, he said.