Some four dozen train cars careened off their tracks and caught fire on the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania on Friday. Several of these had been carrying toxic chemicals, and as fears of an explosion mounted, officials conducted a controlled release and burn of the toxins on Monday.
An hour after the release was supposed to begin, flames and black smoke could be seen high in the sky above where the derailment occurred, writes Patrick Orsagos and John Seewer of the Associated Press (AP).
“We know the smoke looked alarming, but we are being told that everything was carried out according to plan,” the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency said in a tweet Monday night. State and federal environmental officials “are monitoring air and water quality and have detected nothing alarming.”
Ohio and Pennsylvania’s governors ordered an evacuation for a one-mile by two-mile area surrounding the derailment and including parts of both states, according to a statement from Ohio Governor Mike DeWine.
“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,” per the statement.
The site had been on fire ever since the derailment, which occurred at around 9 p.m. on Friday in East Palestine, Ohio, per the Washington Post’s María Luisa Paúl, Andrea Salcedo and Justine McDaniel. After receiving indications of a mechanical issue from a detector on the roadside, the train’s crew applied the emergency brake. The three crew members were not injured, writes WOSU’s Annie Wu.
While the accident involved roughly 50 of the 141 cars of a Norfolk Southern train, only about ten of them contained hazardous materials, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said, per CNN’s Sara Smart, Holly Yan and Michelle Watson.
On Sunday evening, concerns about an explosion began to rise. DeWine said in a statement that “a drastic temperature change has taken place in a rail car, and there is now the potential of a catastrophic tanker failure which could cause an explosion with the potential of deadly shrapnel traveling up to a mile.”
The Norfolk Southern Railroad planned the controlled release in an attempt to avert such a disaster. Authorities slowly released the chemical vinyl chloride from five rail cars and then burned it in a trough, per the AP. Vinyl chloride is a man-made, colorless gas that burns easily and is linked to liver, brain and lung cancer, as well as lymphoma and leukemia, according to the National Cancer Institute.
“The controlled release process involves the burning of the rail cars’ chemicals, which will release fumes into the air that can be deadly if inhaled,” DeWine said in a statement. Other risks include skin burns or serious lung damage.
As of Tuesday, the controlled burn was out and the blazing cars had subsided, per CBS Pittsburgh.
“That is such a great testimony to the strength of our emergency responders who reacted so quickly to get the resources we needed into the danger zone,” Ohio Director of Public Safety Andy Wilson said Tuesday, per CBS Pittsburgh. “A statement to the scientists and experts we brought in who are giving the decisionmakers the information they need to keep the community safe, but most of all it is a positive statement of strength with respect to the members of the community.”
There was a strong odor in East Palestine over the weekend, according to WOSU. Still, officials said Sunday that air and drinking water were safe.