EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (NewsNation) — Nearly 2,000 residents in East Palestine are waiting to go home Tuesday after crews released toxic chemicals from five cars of a derailed train near the Pennsylvania state line to reduce the threat of an explosion, with no timeline on their return.
“If I could give you an estimate, I would so gladly give it that to you, I can’t,” said East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick.
Flames and black smoke billowed high into the sky from the derailment site late Monday afternoon, about an hour after authorities said the controlled release began.
The slow release of vinyl chloride from five rail cars into a trough that was then ignited created a large plume above the village of East Palestine, but authorities said they were closely monitoring the air quality.
New drone video captured the moment, which almost looked like what you’d see under a rocket — orange balls of flames firing up, turning into a black cloud of billowing smoke.
Residents within a 2-mile radius of the derailment site to shelter in place and keep their doors and windows closed through the evening as a precaution in case of wind shifts.
Scott Deutsch of Norfolk Southern Railway called the burn mission a success.
“When we’re letting them burn they’re consuming the product and if they’re burning and you visibly see that they’re not building pressure because it’s vented off,” Deutsch said.
Ohio Emergency Management and Norfolk Southern Railway officials said the alternative would’ve been an uncontrolled blast that could have sent dangerous fumes and shrapnel flying over a mile toward the Pennsylvania state line just miles away.
The Environmental Protection Agency said it has not detected elevated levels of chemicals outside the evacuation zone.
Forced evacuations began Sunday night in East Palestine after authorities became alarmed that the rail cars could explode after a “drastic temperature change” was observed in a rail car. Those evacuations left thousands displaced for another day.
“It’s just been chaotic; just having to leave and not being able to go back or having the things you need,” said Brady Eichler, who was forced to evacuate.
“I had everyone calling my phone telling me to get the hell out. They know how hard-headed I can be. I might be hard-headed, but I ain’t stupid,” said William Hugar, who was forced to evacuate.
Ohio public safety officials said they need to come up with safe air and water values for the evacuation area, where those inside the evacuation zone could have faced serious injury or death if exposed to the vinyl chloride.
“Quite frankly when I feel it’s safe for my family to return, we will lift that evacuation order and start returning people home,” Drabick said.
In a statement, Norfolk Southern said the operation is going well and the company is committed to continuing to help those affected.
“Norfolk Southern is partnering with local and state officials to refine the remediation plan as necessary and working around the clock to clear the site. Air, soil, and water monitoring continues at the site of the incident and within the evacuation zone in coordination with state and federal agencies. Our Family Assistance Center (FAC) remains open for community members. We are also assisting local business owners with questions through the FAC, and when the evacuation concludes, representatives from Norfolk Southern plan to remain in the community to further assist residents and business owners,” the statement read.
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. Federal investigators say the cause of the derailment was a mechanical issue with a rail car axle.
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
Chemical engineering professor at Dr. Eric Beckman told NewsNation said the risks posed by the chemicals are very serious.
“It’s a suspected carcinogen. Long term exposure is associated with cancers, particularly of the liver. Short term exposures, if they’re high enough, it’s just toxic, it can harm you and kill you,” he said.
Beckman said if he were living in the evacuation zone, he wouldn’t return home until he was sure well water would be regularly tested for the effects of vinyl chloride or it’s by products.
“Usually, the problems come from from people who use wells, and I think of that more in rural areas, which is what we’re talking about. So if people using wells as their primary source, then I would make sure that those get tested,” he said.
NewsNation tried to ask officials if well water testing would be required during an afternoon news conference, but officials took limited questions and left abruptly without answering.