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Ohio town under evacuation order after train derails, chemical burns

Residents within 1 mile of the scene in eastern Ohio were ordered to stay away. Officials said Saturday that the burning chemical was vinyl chloride.
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The location of Friday’s train derailment in eastern Ohio was a hazardous materials scene Saturday, and a fire that raged overnight continued to smolder, officials said.

People living and working within one mile of the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, were ordered to evacuate Friday. Those orders were still in effect Saturday as the scene was being monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency, the village’s mayor, Trent Conaway, said.

The burning chemical was identified as vinyl chloride, the village said in a news release Saturday afternoon. The flammable gas is used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes, vehicle interior features such as upholstery, and plastic kitchenware. 

The EPA has stated that “inhaled vinyl chloride has been shown to increase the risk of a rare form of liver cancer in humans” as well as other possible effects from exposure. 

Exposure usually involves inhalation. If someone can smell the chemical, they’re being exposed to unsafe levels of vinyl chloride, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

Though other materials carried by the train were yet to be identified, authorities said Saturday they’d all be treated as potentially and equally hazardous as a precaution.

In a statement Saturday, the village of East Palestine said “zero health risks” had been discovered so far.

“The village’s drinking water is safe to drink and is being continually monitored,” it said.

There were no known injuries from the derailment, and no structures were involved, officials said Saturday.

Firefighters from three states responded to the area, which is on the Pennsylvania border and north of West Virginia, but initially had to stand back due to safety concerns, authorities said.

“Everybody is working together to try and solve this situation as best we can,” Conaway, the mayor, said in video broadcast Friday by NBC affiliate WFMJ of Youngstown.

On Saturday, first responders were getting water on the wreckage — so much so that the village’s water pressure might be affected, officials said.

NTSB investigating

The National Transportation Safety Board was among the agencies investigating the derailment. 

The 150-car Norfolk Southern train, which included roughly 20 containing hazardous materials, was headed from Matteson, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania, when it derailed near East Palestine’s James Street crossing for reasons not yet known at 8:55 p.m. Friday, NTSB member Michael Graham said Saturday afternoon.

About 50 cars were off the track, 20 of those 50 may contain hazardous materials, and 14 of those 20 were likely carrying vinyl chloride, Graham said. Those 14 cars “have been exposed to fire,” he said.

“The fire has since reduced in intensity but remains active in the two main tracks are still blocked," Graham said.

At least one car believed to be carrying the gas was releasing pressure as designed, he said.

As NTSB investigators awaited an opportunity to see the wreckage up close, they were focusing on state police aircraft footage and other drone footage of the wreckage as well as video of the train that might have been taken by other locomotives, Graham said.

The speed limit along the stretch of track appears to be 45 mph, and one thing investigators will probe is how fast the train was going when it jumped its track, the board member said. Event recorders on one or all of the train’s three engine cars might help investigators determine its velocity.

The conductor and any other personnel on board the train would likely be interviewed, Graham said.

Residents evacuated

Two evacuation centers were opened and the American Red Cross was notified, the mayor said. Residents nearby who couldn’t evacuate were told to stay indoors.

Resident Eric Whiting, 42, evacuated his family Friday, stayed at a hotel, and returned Saturday because, he said, his home is upwind of the wreckage.

“I didn’t expect this to happen in my backyard,” he said.

A train aficionado, Whiting was busy Saturday morning sending a drone over the site to capture video. He said there are still flames amid the smoldering wreckage and, at one point Saturday afternoon, a burst of combustion was seen.

He said the smell of the burned wreckage was omnipresent.

A backhoe was at work nearby readying rail components for a repair, he said, as it’s a busy corridor that sees many trains in a day. “A lot of money runs on this track,” he said.

Norfolk Southern said Friday that it was aware of the train derailment and was coordinating with local officials and also mobilizing its own teams.

Conaway also asked that people stay away from the area and allow first responders to deal with the derailment.

East Palestine is a community of around 4,700 around 20 miles southeast of Youngstown.