Residents of East Palestine, Ohio, have returned to their homes after a train derailment involving plastics feedstock vinyl chloride monomer led to an evacuation in the area.
On Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, leading to a massive fire at the crash site. The train included 150 railcars, 50 of them were involved in the crash.
Ten of the 50 railcars contained hazardous materials, with five of those containing VCM.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and other local and regional officials said Feb. 8 that evacuated residents could safely return home. Officials with DeWine's office said that air quality samples in the area of the wreckage and in nearby residential neighborhoods "have consistently showed readings at points below safety screening levels for contaminants of concern." They added that there will be ongoing air monitoring in the area.
EPA spokesperson Rachel Bassler told PN that the agency is focusing on air monitoring in the area and also is doing that work at individual homes if requested. She added Feb. 10 that air testing in the area currently is described as “nondetect” for the materials involved in the accident, meaning that they are below screening levels.
EPA provides the results of their air monitoring to local health agencies, who then make determinations on what local residents should do, Bassler said.
Residents in a one-by-two-mile grid were asked to evacuate on Feb. 5 after fire crews were unable to contain the fire, leading to a risk of one or more of the VCM railcars exploding. On Feb. 6, work crews drained the VCM cars and burned off the material, causing black clouds of smoke which could be seen from miles away.
Officials with Atlanta-based Norfolk Southern said Feb. 7 that the firm and its contractors had begun clearing the site of derailed cars and were continuing environmental remediation work. They added that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will inspect the cars at a staging area before they're cleared and removed.
Norfolk Southern officials previously had said that drinking water in the area is not at risk. They added that odors from the site could be detected even if air quality levels are safe.
Ohio EPA spokesman Anthony Chenault said in an email that the agency was monitoring for several chemical compounds in the area, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs, including VCM chloride and butyl acrylate), hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, phosgene and mineral acids (including hydrogen chloride).
According to an Ohio EPA fact sheet, the federal EPA collected water samples from Sulphur Run and Leslie Run — two local waterways — on Feb. 4 that detected elevated levels of VOCs and semi-volatile organic compounds. EPA provided the data to Ohio EPA. Results of those tests will be posted online.
A report from WFMJ-TV in Youngstown said that the train also contained plastic resins, butyl acrylate and benzene residue. Norfolk Southern referred all questions about the incident to NTSB.
NTSB spokesperson Jennifer Gabris confirmed to Plastics News on Feb. 10 that some railcars involved in the crash contained plastic pellets. She said that a preliminary report containing more detailed information about materials carried by the train would be completed in 30 days. Benzene exposure is mentioned on a Norfolk Southern fact sheet regarding the accident.
Local media reports have said that chickens and other small animals in the area have been found dead. Officials with the East Palestine Fire Department and the Columbiana County Emergency Management Agency could not be reached to confirm those reports.
NTSB officials previously said that the preliminary cause of the derailment was a mechanical issue on an axle of one of the railcars. They added that no injuries were reported from the three-person crew on board the train. The accident happened shortly before 9 p.m. as the train was traveling east from Madison, Ill., to Conway, Pa.
In a statement sent to PN, Vinyl Institute President and CEO Ned Monroe said that VI “shares the concern for the health, safety, and welfare of all the residents in the affected area.”
“According to public reports from the EPA, they are monitoring the air and water quality and have determined that it is safe for residents to return to their homes,” he added. “We will continue to closely monitor the situation and the communications from EPA and other agencies.”
Washington-based VI represents leading U.S. producers of PVC, VCM and vinyl additives and modifiers. The U.S. vinyl industry includes almost 3,000 manufacturing facilities.
East Palestine has a population of about 5,000. It’s located 15 miles south of Youngstown and about 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.