EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (WJW) — The Ohio and Pennsylvania governors on Monday ordered residents living in a 1-mile by 2-mile area surrounding a 50-car train derailment to evacuate ahead of a controlled release of hazardous chemicals from the derailed cars set for that afternoon.

To avoid a potentially “catastrophic” explosion of rail cars, five of which were carrying vinyl chloride, a controlled release and burn of the chemical from the cars occurred at 4 p.m. Monday.

“At this point, we haven’t seen anything that wasn’t expected. We have some slightly elevated readings and particulates, as you can see from the black smoke. So far so good and we’re going to continue monitoring until the fire is out and then past that in case there are any other changes through the night,” said James Justice with Ohio EPA Monday night.

The EPA is also checking the water quality and only when all is clear can people return home and clean up can begin on the railway.

Due to the incident, the Mahoning County EMA is urging residents who see a haze or smell chemical odors to remain indoors at this time.

See photos taken shortly after the release below:

Those living closest to the site were warned they were “facing grave danger of death” due from inhalation. Others farther out could be seriously burned or sustain serious lung damage, Gov. Mike DeWine warned Monday.

There were about 30 households in the evacuation zone, which includes parts of Columbiana County and Pennsylvania’s Beaver County, officials said Monday. This was the state’s latest models for how the chemical release was expected to flow:

(WJW photo)

Those living in the red area seen above, starting around state Route 165 and the Pennsylvania border and extending south, were told they were “at risk of death” from fume inhalation, DeWine said Monday. Those living in the orange area extending further to the southeast were at risk of severe skin burns or long-term lung damage, he said.

“We are ordering you to leave,” said DeWine. “This is a matter of life and death. … You are in imminent danger. You need to leave immediately.”

The areas at-risk were in eastern East Palestine, including:


South Pleasant

BFI Access Road

Taggart Street

North Pleasant Road

Failor Road

East Martin, east of Pleasant

Those in East Palestine who need help evacuating should call 330-457-0733 or 330-457-2455.

Those living on the Pennsylvania side should call the state police at 724-773-7400. Residents can get more information on the evacuation and shelter-in-place orders by calling Beaver County Emergency Services at 724-775-0880.

People who have children in their household and chose not to evacuate may be arrested, according to the Columbiana County Sheriff’s Office.

A 50-car train derailment

According to FOX 8’s sister station WKBN, the train pulling 150 to 200 cars derailed Friday at about 9 p.m., on the east end of East Palestine near the Pennsylvania border.

The fire that followed stretched from one-quarter to one-half mile along the tracks. The glow of the fire could be seen 10 miles away. The intensity of the fire has decreased since Friday, but as of Monday afternoon was still burning.

The vinyl chloride inside the cars was not burning as of Monday afternoon, WKBN reported.

DeWine’s office on Sunday evening sent out an emergency warning after a drastic temperature change in one of the rail cars was detected with a potential for a catastrophic tanker failure. Authorities say it could cause an explosion with the potential of deadly shrapnel and toxic fumes traveling up to a mile.

Officials decided to use a controlled explosion to punch small 3-inch holes in the cars to release the pressure inside. The controlled release was set for 3:30 p.m. Monday, but later pushed back to 4 p.m., state emergency personnel confirmed.

“Part of the decision-making process — if the cars started to react on their own again, we can’t control that time of day where that could occur,” said Scott Deutsch of railroad operator Norfolk Southern. “We want to be able to control that situation. That’s the safest way to control the situation.”

About 500 people were in the initial, much larger area that authorities worked to evacuate on Sunday evening, DeWine said. Authorities went door-to-door, knocking on doors and windows. Officials believe nearly 100 people left during that evacuation.

(Photo courtesy of WKBN)

“We are just going back to revisit, so we can urge anybody if they’re still there — the necessity to get out because of the volatility of this,” said East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick. “We just want them to be safe.”

The controlled burn was expected to take one to three hours. It was unknown how long it could take before residents can return to their homes. Officials expect to announce when it’s safe to return.

See aerial footage of the scene on Monday from SkyFOX in the player below:

Nineteen road closures in the East Palestine area were issued starting at 8 a.m. Monday. See the list here on Ohio State Highway Patrol’s Facebook page.

The patrol said law enforcement will be present to ensure the area remains safe.

What are the public health risks?

Two of the derailed cars were full with about 177,000 pounds of vinyl chloride each, officials said. Three other cars were no more than half-full of the material.

Vinyl chloride is used to make PVC piping, hazardous materials specialist Silverio Caggiano told WKBN.

When the material is burned during the Monday controlled release, it’s expected to create two toxic compounds: hydrogen chloride and a small amount of phosgene, Master Sgt. David Hurst of the Ohio National Guard said Monday.

Hydrogen chloride can inflame the lungs, causing buildup of fluid and even death, according to the CDC. Phosgene is a poisonous gas and was used in chemical warfare in World War I, according to the CDC.

The runoff from the derailment has already impacted Sulfur Creek and other state waters, including their fish, Kurt Kollar with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency said Monday. Since the incident, the runoff has been controlled, but continued sampling will determine the extent of the contamination.

Though there is “nothing to indicate a threat” to the village’s well field, officials are still awaiting sampling results to determine whether residents’ private groundwater wells were contaminated, Kollar said. He noted that groundwater wells are designed to be protected against surface water intake, but future studies will look to determine how deep the contamination goes.

One reason responders opted not to fight the train car fire with water was to keep contaminated water off the ground, Kollar added.

This is a developing story. Stay with FOX 8 for updates.