Controlled burn ends threat of explosion at site of derailment
EAST PALESTINE — The explosion, fire and huge smoke plume over the village on Monday looked like something out of a Hollywood blockbuster movie — but the controlled-burn operation worked, according to Norfolk Southern Railway.
“The controlled breach of several rail cars has been completed successfully under the supervision of experts and first responders. Some of the material is now burning off consistent with expectations from the earlier models, and is expected to drain for a short number of hours,” a Norfolk Southern news release said.
“We have been, and will continue, monitoring air quality with the Ohio EPA. Remediation work at the site can now safely continue,” it stated.
The simultaneous slow release of the chemical vinyl chloride from five rail cars at the derailment site into a trough that then was ignited created a large plume above the village.
In an earlier news conference, Gov. Mike DeWine addressed a large press contingent regarding the plan, noting he had been talking with Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro and consulting with emergency responders, the Ohio National Guard, U.S. Department of Defense, Norfolk Southern Railway, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, Ohio Emergency Management Agency and the local EMA. “We had to weigh different risks with no great solutions,” he said, sharing the concern of the railroad for a possible explosion — describing such an event “as potentially catastrophic.”
Based on modeling information conducted by the Ohio National Guard and U.S. Department of Defense, the governors ordered an immediate evacuation of a 1-mile by 2-mile area covering the eastern part of East Palestine and the Darlington area of Pennsylvania in Beaver County.
The vinyl chloride in the five rail cars was considered unstable because of a drastic change in temperature that was discovered Sunday night. According to Norfolk Southern, the pressure relief valves had stopped working on some of the cars, putting them at risk of exploding.
Rather than let that happen, authorities opted for the controlled release of the vinyl chloride. A railroad spokesman said small charges would be used to create small holes 2 1/2 to 3 inches in diameter in the tanks for the slow release of the material into trenches dug in the ground where flares were lined up to ignite the chemical and burn it off.
The whole process was estimated to take one to three hours. The concern was that if the tanks exploded on their own, the result would be far more damaging and deadly. This way, the officials controlled what happened.
“That’s the safest way to control that situation,” Scott Deutsche of Norfolk Southern said.
The material left after the chemical burns out then will be remediated.
During the news conference, DeWine urged residents to leave their homes before the controlled burn, explaining possibly dire health consequences.
“You need to leave. You just need to leave. It’s a matter of life and death,” DeWine said.
Fire Chief Keith Drabick said they had been working closely with Pennsylvania officials, and evacuation of residents was stressed from the first moment the train derailed.
“We just want them to be safe, that’s all I wanted from the start,” Drabick said.
EPA and OEPA officials said they would continue to monitor both the air and the surface water and groundwater, saying the material that went into local creeks had been contained.
All three Columbiana County commissioners attended the news conference with the governor, along with state legislators and Pennsylvania officials.
“We appreciate Gov. DeWine, when he became aware of this last night, he immediately said he would be here. He’s here with his team, his complete team from Columbus, and we’re appreciative of that. Everyone needs to stay calm and follow the directions of law enforcement,” Commissioner Mike Halleck said.
“I understand this situation has been very overwhelming for East Palestine families impacted by the train derailment within their community. Please be assured as your state representative, I have spent this past weekend with local, county and state officials identifying solutions that will keep our residents and the surrounding area as safe as possible during this serious situation,” state Rep. Monica Robb Blasdel, R-Columbiana County, said.
State Sen. Michael Rulli, R-Salem, also accompanied the governor at the news conference, and said he’s closely monitoring developments at the site.
“This is an extremely dangerous situation affecting many people,” he said. “Our first priority has been getting people evacuated from the immediate area. If anyone needs help with temporary housing or any other kind or emergency assistance, do not hesitate to reach out.”
“My prayers are with our brave first responders, railroad workers and for all the families forced from their homes,” Rulli said. “We need to let the professionals do their jobs to secure this site so we can make sure the area is finally safe for people to go back home.”