Ohio authorities plan “controlled release” of toxic material

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Authorities in Ohio say they plan to release toxic chemicals from five cars of a derailed train in Ohio to reduce the threat of an explosion.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine says a “controlled release” of vinyl chloride will take place on Monday at 3:30 p.m.

Residents near the site have been ordered to evacuate. DeWine said residents need to leave the area because of the risk of death or serious injury.

“We are ordering you to leave. This is a matter of life and death,” DeWine said at a press conference. Anyone who remains in the immediate area faces “grave danger of death” if they inhale the fumes.

Police officers and others knocked on doors Sunday night telling people to leave and were back out in the same neighborhoods on Monday, DeWine said. Authorities believe most, if not all, people have left who were told to do so.

Scott Deutsch of Norfolk Southern Railway said the controlled release during the daytime will allow the fumes to disperse more quickly and prevent the rail cars from exploding and sending shrapnel and other debris from flying through the neighborhood, Deutsch said.

“We cant control where that goes,” he said.

He estimated the process would take from one to three hours. The site is very close to the state line, and the evacuation area extends into Pennsylvania.

About 50 cars, including 10 carrying hazardous materials, derailed in a fiery crash Friday night, according to rail operator Norfolk Southern and the National Transportation Safety Board. No injuries to crew, residents or first responders were reported.

Norfolk Southern said 20 of the more than 100 cars on the train were classified as carrying hazardous materials — defined as cargo that could pose any kind of danger “including flammables, combustibles, or environmental risks.”

The cars involved carried combustible liquids, butyl acrylate and residue of benzene from previous shipments, officials said.

Five were transporting vinyl chloride, which is used to make the polyvinyl chloride hard plastic resin in plastic products and is associated with increased risk of liver cancer and other cancers, according to the federal government’s National Cancer Institute.

A statement from DeWine’s office warned on Sunday night of “the potential of a catastrophic tanker failure” after a “drastic temperature change” was observed in a rail car.

Police cars, snow plows and military vehicles from the Ohio National Guard blocked streets leading into East Palestine on Monday morning as authorities began enforcing what had previously been a strongly recommended evacuation zone within a 1-mile (1.6-kilometer) radius of the crash site.

Schools and many businesses were closed, and the local high school was turned into a shelter.

Norfolk Southern has opened an assistance center in the village to gather information from affected residents. But some residents complained about a lack of information regarding the evacuation, which covered the homes of about half the town’s 4,800 residents.

Federal investigators say the cause of the derailment was a mechanical issue with a rail car axle.

The three-member train crew received an alert about the mechanical defect “shortly before the derailment,” Michael Graham, a board member of the NTSB, said Sunday. Investigators identified the exact “point of derailment,” but the board was still working to determine which rail car experienced the axle issue, he said.

Mayor Trent Conaway, who declared a state of emergency in the village, said one person was arrested for going around barricades right up to the crash. He warned people to stay away and said they’d risk arrest.

“I don’t know why anybody would want to be up there; you’re breathing toxic fumes if you’re that close,” he said.