Gene J. Puskar/AP
EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — A mechanical problem with a railcar axle caused dozens of freight cars to derail in flames in Ohio near the Pennsylvania state line Friday night, federal investigators said Sunday. The smoldering tangle of cars, some carrying hazardous materials, kept an evacuation order in effect.
National Transportation Safety Board board member Michael Graham told a news conference that the three-member train crew received an alert about the mechanical defect “shortly before the derailment,” but said the council was still working to determine which car had the problem.
About 50 rail cars derailed in eastern Palestine around 9 p.m. Friday as a train carried a variety of goods from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania, rail operator Norfolk Southern said. No injuries to crew, residents or first responders were reported.
Graham said investigators also identified the exact “point of derailment” but did not reveal the location on Sunday. He said the information will be included in a preliminary investigation report expected next month.
Officials in eastern Palestine said on Sunday that rescuers were watching but keeping their distance from the blaze, saying repair efforts could not begin while the cars were smoldering. The evacuation covers a 1.6 kilometer radius, as environmental authorities cautiously monitor air quality monitors, officials said.
Mayor Trent Conaway, who declared a state of emergency in the village, said a person was arrested for skirting barricades until the crash overnight. He warned that more arrests would follow if people did not stay away.
“I don’t know why anyone would want to be up there; you’re breathing in toxic fumes if you’re that close,” he said, pointing out that air quality monitors away from the fire showed no level of concern and that the city water is safe because it is fed by groundwater unaffected by certain materials that have gone into the waterways. Environmental Protection Agency crews were working to remove contaminants from the waterways and monitor water quality.
Fire Chief Keith Drabick said it was so important to avoid the area “because a train carrying hazardous materials has wrecked in the city and is burning. It doesn’t get any simpler than that.”
Sheriffs went door-to-door Sunday counting the remaining residents and urging those in the evacuation zone to leave. “We ask residents to please evacuate and cooperate,” officials said in a statement. Schools and offices in the village will be closed on Monday and officials will determine this afternoon whether the school closure will be extended. Businesses in the evacuation zone would not be allowed to open on Monday, officials said.
Norfolk Southern said 20 of the more than 100 cars were classified as carrying hazardous materials – defined as cargo that could present any type of hazard “including flammables, combustibles or environmental hazards”. Some cars carried vinyl chloride, and at least one “intermittently released” its contents via a pressure relief device.
Officials said Sunday afternoon that the cars involved were also carrying combustible liquids, butyl acrylate and benzene residue from previous shipments, as well as non-hazardous materials such as wheat, plastic pellets , malt liquors and lubricating oil.
“Short-term exposure to low levels of substances associated with the derailment does not pose a long-term health risk to residents,” according to a “Frequently Asked Questions” post on the village’s Facebook page. “Vinyl chloride and benzene can cause cancer in people exposed in the workplace to high concentrations for many years; however, there is no evidence that potential exposure that occurred after the derailment increased the risk of cancer or any other long-term health effects in members of the community.”
The NTSB said only 10 cars carrying hazardous materials derailed and five of them were carrying vinyl chloride, not 14 as previously reported. And officials again stressed on Saturday evening that they had not confirmed the release of vinyl chloride other than pressure relief devices working as expected.
Vinyl chloride, used to make the tough plastic polyvinyl chloride resin in a variety of plastic products, is associated with an increased risk of liver cancer and other cancers, according to the federal government’s National Cancer Institute. . Norfolk Southern was to provide an information sheet listing all of the chemicals involved.
The evacuation order covered the homes of 1,500 to 2,000 of the town’s 4,800 to 4,900 residents, but officials said it was unclear how many were actually affected. About eight residents remained in an emergency shelter. Norfolk Southern opened a helpline in the village to gather information from affected residents; Village officials said 75 people went to the center on Saturday and around 100 went there on Sunday morning.