The Rundown

Controlled release at Ohio derailment site prompts mandatory evacuations

By: - February 6, 2023 2:57 pm

Detail of the map that Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro showed during his news conference on Monday, 2/6/23 (Screen Capture).

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said Monday that authorities were planning a “controlled release” of the vinyl chloride in five cars of a Norfolk Southern train that derailed Friday near East Palestine, Ohio. The release was scheduled to happen at 3:30 p.m. to avoid a potentially catastrophic explosion.

Officials said the vinyl chloride in the derailed cars was unstable and could potentially explode, causing potentially deadly shrapnel and toxic fumes. Vinyl chloride is a carcinogen used in making plastic resin.

Monday’s decision to conduct the controlled release came after consulting with the Department of Defense.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine speaks during a news conference on Monday, 2/6/23 (Screen Capture).

“The controlled release of the toxic chemicals also has the potential to be deadly if inhaled,” DeWine said during a Monday news conference, adding that those closest to the site of the derailment faced “grave danger of death” if they remained in that area during the release.

According to Norfolk Southern Railroad, the controlled release process involves the burning of the rail cars’ chemicals, which will release fumes into the air that can be deadly if inhaled.

Based on current weather patterns and the expected flow of the smoke and fumes, anyone who remains in the red affected area is facing grave danger of death, DeWine’s office said in a release. Anyone who remains in the yellow impacted area is at a high risk of severe injury, including skin burns and serious lung damage, it added.

In Ohio, the areas at risk include eastern East Palestine, including Parker, South Pleasant, BFI Access Road, Taggart Street, North Pleasant Road, Failor Road, and East Martin, east of Pleasant, the release from DeWine’s office said.

Those who need help evacuating the area should call 330-457-0733 or 330-457-2455, it added.

According to the Columbiana County Sheriff, those with children in their homes who decline to evacuate may be subject to arrest.

It is believed that most individuals have already left the impacted areas, but law enforcement in both states are currently working to ensure that all individuals have left the vicinity prior to the controlled release, DeWine’s release said.. Depending on the exact amount of material currently inside the rail cars, the railroad estimates that the controlled release of chemicals could burn for 1 to 3 hours, it added. It is unknown when residents will be able to return to their homes but an announcement will be made when it is safe to return, DeWine’s office said.

The evacuation order covers a one mile by two mile area surrounding East Palestine, which includes Darlington, Beaver County, in Pennsylvania, and covers 22 Pennsylvania residents,  many of whom had already evacuated as of Sunday  evening, Gov. Josh Shapiro said in a separate news conference.

Shapiro added that Pennsylvania State Police were going door-to-door within the evacuation zone on Monday and providing assistance to all of those who remained within the zone to ensure that they were evacuated.

Norfolk Southern spokesperson Scott Deutsch said at the Ohio news conference that they expected the release to take between one and three hours.

He added that a controlled release was preferable to an explosion, to prevent the toxic fumes from being contained near the site. “If we do it during the daytime, that’ll allow the products to just keep moving up into the atmosphere,” he said.

Shapiro displayed a map showing the area of the derailment, and the parts where evacuation was necessary.

“Let me be very, very clear. If you are in this red zone that is on the map and you refuse to evacuate, you are risking death,” he said. “This is very serious. If you are within the orange area on this map, you risk permanent lung damage within a matter of hours or days. This is my strongest possible recommendation— that is joined in by every public safety expert—if you are within this evacuation zone, please evacuate immediately. I want you to know if I were there right now, if the First Lady and our children were there right now, we would evacuate. We would leave this area.”

Shapiro added that so far no air or water contamination had been observed in Pennsylvania.



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Kim Lyons
Kim Lyons

Veteran journalist Kim Lyons covers Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. Readers may follow her on Twitter @SocialKimLy.