This is a developing story and will be updated as news happens.
UPDATE: Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2:00 pm:
Evacuated residents in East Palestine, Ohio, and Beaver County, Pennsylvania, are waiting for word on when they can return to their homes, following a massive train derailment and chemical fire last Friday.
The U.S. EPA is monitoring air quality in and around the evacuation zone, which is home to nearly 5000 people total, about thirty in PA. On Monday, the governors of both states ordered residents to leave immediately, or face grave danger. To avoid an unplanned explosion, Norfolk Southern initiated the venting of chemicals from five of their rail cars. This created a ball of fire and a giant plume of black smoke, and the company said the chemical release was successful.
“Now that the controlled fire, the venting, is done, we’re increasing our air monitoring within the one-mile evacuation zone to get data on what the situation is now,” EPA’s James Justice said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon.
There were complaints of odors outside the evacuation zone, according to Justice, but testing did not show significant problems. Officials said they are working as quickly as they can to ensure the safe return of evacuated residents.
UPDATE: Tuesday, Feb. 8:
Officials from Norfolk Southern Railroad initiated a controlled release of chemicals from five of the derailed train cars on Monday afternoon. They were afraid of the train cars exploding on their own, so this release was an attempt to gain control, and avert a potential catastrophe.
At a press conference, the company’s Scott Deutsch explained the process: they cut a small hole in the cars, so the material could leak into a trench where they had placed flares, “This allows us to control that operation, and not have the car do it itself,” Deutsch said.
Pittsburgh TV station WPXI showed live footage of the huge fire caused by the controlled release, followed by billowing, dark gray smoke, making the sky look like it was nighttime.
The cars contained vinyl chloride, and it was considered unstable, so any explosion could have sent shrapnel and toxins into the air in a one to two-mile radius in this area of Ohio and neighboring Pennsylvania.
Authorities went door to door urging people to leave the area, and many people evacuated. But as of Sunday, hundreds still remained. At the Monday press conference, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine explained the harm that could come to people who stayed — and he was emphatic.
“Everyone in Ohio and Pennsylvania who is in this area, you need to leave. You just need to leave. We are ordering you to leave. This is a matter of life and death,” he said.
People who didn’t leave could be arrested, especially if they had children. But officials added they had conducted another canvas — and more residents had left the area.
The biggest concern for residents is the man-made chemical vinyl chloride. It’s used to make PVC plastic – used in pipes, car parts, and packing materials, and these applications aren’t typically thought to harm people. But at room temperature, vinyl chloride is a gas, and you can breathe it in. It can make people dizzy, and cause headaches. It’s also a known carcinogen.
Environmental activist groups like the Breathe Project in Pittsburgh call the trains carrying hazardous substances “bomb trains”. That group tracks derailments and says there have been 8 train derailments in Ohio and Pennsylvania since 2018. They and others are raising questions about infrastructure conditions, railroad operations, and risk to people and property.
Monday, Feb. 6:
Authorities are warning today (Monday) that there is a high probability of a toxic gas release and more explosions where 50 Norfolk Southern train cars derailed in East Palestine, Ohio.
After the initial incident at 9 p.m. on Friday, there were explosions and a massive fire. No one was injured. Some railcars were carrying the known carcinogens benzene and vinyl chloride, as well as combustible liquids, according to the Columbiana County Emergency Management Agency.
Local, state and federal officials responded.
Late Sunday, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine called in the Ohio National Guard and issued a warning to residents that the situation had taken a dangerous turn, and that anyone within that one-mile radius who had yet to evacuate needed to do so immediately. The Columbiana County Emergency Management Agency said those remaining could be arrested.
Officials warn that a drastic temperature change in a rail car could result in a catastrophic explosion, with the potential of shrapnel traveling up to a mile.
At 7 a.m. Monday morning, the East Palestine Police Department said it would evacuate its communication center.
Shawna Lewis and her family live near the tracks, and first saw a photo of the fire online.
“And then my neighbor was beating on my door, and we went outside and we could see the big cloud of smoke and everything,” Lewis said. “then they were going up and down the street asking people to evacuate their homes.”
Lewis returned home briefly Sunday to feed her cats, and then checked into a hotel with her 7-year-old daughter. Local schools are being used as temporary shelters, and classes were canceled Monday.
Despite a strong odor in East Palestine, Columbiana County Emergency officials said air monitoring shows that “the air in the community is safe.”
The National Transportation Safety Board said in a press conference the derailment could have been caused by a mechanical issue with one of the Norfolk Southern railcar axles.