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Crews in Ohio successfully release toxic chemicals from derailed tankers


Not far from the border between Ohio and Pennsylvania, a freight train went off the tracks.


The crash led to fire, and authorities said they drained hazardous chemicals to avoid an explosion. Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes and schools, and businesses shut down in East Palestine. Residents are still being told to stay away until the fire dies down.

INSKEEP: Julie Grant is covering this for The Allegheny Front. Good morning.

JULIE GRANT, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What's the trouble here?

GRANT: Well, there's a mess of smoldering train tanker cars crashed around the tracks. There's 50 cars in all. The focus was on five of them, those filled with chemical vinyl chloride. In at least one car, temperatures were rising, and officials from Norfolk Southern were concerned that it would blow up. They conducted what they called a controlled release on Monday. They cut a small hole in the cars so the chemicals could slowly leak into a trench that was filled with flares, kind of like a controlled burn.

INSKEEP: Got you.

GRANT: And there was an explosion. Scott Deutsch of Norfolk Southern said that was the safest way to proceed.


SCOTT DEUTSCH: So this was for us to control the reaction that was taking place and not the cars doing it on their own. That's very important. That makes it safe.

GRANT: So the plan was about controlling the explosion, when it occurred, where train parts landed and limiting fumes in the air. And the company says it was a success.

INSKEEP: You know, Julie, when I look at the pictures of this, it's not even like the train cars are still close to the tracks. They're just scrambled in all directions. It's really stunning. You get a sense of the incredible momentum of these many-tons-heavy cars being thrown around. What could have caused that?

GRANT: Yeah, it's a real scene there. The National Transportation Safety Board was on site over the weekend. The agency's Michael Graham said videos of the scene indicate mechanical issues with one of the rail car axles. That's only preliminary.


GRANT: They used drones to map the derailment, and they were able to secure video and audio recordings. And Graham says they'll create a timeline.

MICHAEL GRAHAM: The data will then be sent to the NTSB's vehicle data recorder lab in Washington, D.C., for a complete evaluation and analysis.

GRANT: So it'll take four to six weeks to produce a preliminary report and up to two years for a final report.

INSKEEP: You know, I just looked up at a television just now, and there was video of a fire there being seen within sight of homes. Granting that people have been evacuated, is there still concern about health effects here?

GRANT: Well, the immediate health effects of breathing in these chemicals can be extreme, from skin burns, lung damage and even death. And this is why Governor DeWine of Ohio was so adamant that people evacuate the area. Authorities say they didn't see any harmful air quality measurements yesterday. The Ohio EPA is monitoring air quality. And officials say that now cleanup and remediation at the site can continue safely.

INSKEEP: How widespread is the evacuation for how long?

GRANT: Well, the order from Governor DeWine and from Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro meant about 5,000 people had to evacuate their homes. Those were people who live within a 1-to-2-mile area around the derailment site, straddling either side of the state line. I spoke with a number of residents over the weekend. They were at a community center looking for help and for information. Some of them were scared and confused, and many are anxious to return home. But that might not happen for a while. Schools are closed for at least a week.

INSKEEP: Julie, thanks for the update. Really appreciate it.

GRANT: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Julie Grant is a reporter with The Allegheny Front who covers environmental issues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Julie Grant