The controlled release of hazardous materials at a train derailment site in East Palestine, Ohio, began Monday afternoon when a boom was followed by a new, large plume of black smoke.
According to a news release from Norfolk Southern, the breach of several rail cars was completed successfully. The operation to burn off the materials from the cars should take several hours, according to the company.
Five of the train cars, which derailed Friday, are carrying vinyl chloride – a chemical that is currently unstable and could explode, hurling toxic fumes into the air and shooting deadly shrapnel as far as a mile away, officials said earlier.
Scott Deutsch with Norfolk Southern said small, shaped charges would be used to blow a small hole in each rail car. The vinyl chloride would then spill into a trench where flares would ignite and burn it away.
Ahead of the controlled release, the evacuation zone surrounding the fiery derailment expanded to two states, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said at a news conference Monday, and it’s not clear when residents will be able to return to their homes.
DeWine and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro had ordered evacuations for a 1-mile-by-2-mile area surrounding East Palestine, on the eastern edge of Ohio, DeWine said.
Those still in the immediate area of the derailment in East Palestine could face “grave danger of death,” DeWine said. He said those in other nearby areas could face “severe injury … including skin burns and serious lung damage.”
One rail car in particular has been a focus of concern because its malfunctioning safety valves are preventing the car from releasing the vinyl chloride inside, a Columbiana County Emergency Management Agency official and a Norfolk Southern spokesperson told CNN on Monday.
Officials have begged residents to leave the area for days as fears about air and water quality have mounted. The threat escalated as an inferno burned for a third night Sunday, and those within a 1-mile radius of the crash site are urged to evacuate immediately.
“There is a high probability of a toxic gas release and/or explosion,” Columbiana County Sheriff Brian McLaughlin warned. “Please, for your own safety, remove your families from danger.”
A “drastic change” was detected Sunday related to the vinyl chloride, Fire Chief Keith Drabick said. Five of the derailed cars were carrying the substance, said the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which is investigating the disaster.
Breathing high levels of vinyl chloride can make someone pass out or die if they don’t get fresh air, the Ohio Department of Health said.
The man-made chemical used to make PVC burns easily at room temperature; can cause dizziness, sleepiness and headaches; and has been linked to an increased risk of cancer in the liver, brain, lungs and blood.
“If a water supply is contaminated, vinyl chloride can enter household air when the water is used for showering, cooking, or laundry,” the National Cancer Institute says.
While air and water quality remained stable Sunday, “things can change at any moment,” James Justice of the EPA’s Emergency Response warned.
Here’s the latest on the ground:
• Residents who stay face arrest: Anyone who refuses to leave the evacuation zone could be arrested on a misdemeanor charge of misconduct in an emergency, the sheriff posted on Facebook. If there are children in a household that doesn’t evacuate, “further charges of endangering children will apply also,” McLaughlin said.
• No one can return: Residents will not be allowed to return to the mandatory evacuation zone for the foreseeable future. “As of 8am this morning – the 1 mile evacuation zone will be enforced and you will not be able to enter the evacuation zone,” the village of East Palestine posted Monday on Facebook. Those outside the zone are asked to stay indoors and avoid travel “to keep the roadways clear for emergency services,” officials said.
• Police shift communications hub: The scene was so dangerous by Monday morning that the East Palestine Police Department had evacuated a communications center for safety reasons, a spokesperson told CNN by phone Monday. “911 service will not be affected,” the department posted online.
• Schools are closed: The East Palestine City School District will be closed for the rest of the week, citing a local state of emergency.
• A mechanical issue was detected: The crew was alerted by an alarm shortly before the derailment “indicating a mechanical issue,” an NTSB member said. An emergency brake was applied, but about 10 cars carrying hazardous materials derailed.
East Palestine, a village of about 5,000 people near the Pennsylvania border, could be the site of a devastating explosion, officials say.
The risk comes from an extreme temperature change inside one of the rail cars, said the governor, who sent Ohio National Guard members to the scene Sunday.
“We are at a risk now of a catastrophic failure of that (train) container. Measures are being taken to try and control that and prevent that from happening,” Drabick said Sunday. “This catastrophic failure, if it occurs, it will produce hydrogen chloride and phosgene gas into the atmosphere.”
“We need you to leave now,” he told some 500 residents who had declined to leave while most of their neighbors evacuated. If there is a blast, he warned, the risk radius around the derailment could grow.
There was a mechanical failure warning before the crash, NTSB Member Michael Graham said Sunday. About 10 of 20 cars carrying hazardous materials – among more than 100 cars in all – derailed, the agency said.
“The crew did receive an alarm from a wayside defect detector shortly before the derailment, indicating a mechanical issue,” Graham said. “Then an emergency brake application initiated.”
Investigators also identified the point of derailment and found video showing “preliminary indications of mechanical issues” on one of the railcar axles, Graham said.
NTSB is still investigating when the potential defect happened and the response from the crew, which included an engineer, conductor and conductor trainee, Graham added.
Investigators have also requested records from Norfolk Southern, including track inspection records, locomotive and railcar inspections and maintenance records, train crew records and qualifications, Graham said.
Rail travel is recognized as the safest method of transporting hazardous materials in the US, according to the US Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration.
“The vast majority of hazardous materials shipped by rail tank car every year arrive safely and without incident, and railroads generally have an outstanding record in moving shipments of hazardous materials safely,” the administration said.
Since the fire in Ohio is still burning, investigators haven’t been able to walk around the crash site.
It’s unclear how long it’ll take to clean up the scene. “We still have a hot zone in there,” Graham said. He said the preliminary report on the derailment is expected in four to six weeks.