Safety Tip: Mechanical Defect Causes Ohio Train Derailment

About 50 vehicles derailed in East Palestine around 9 p.m. Friday as the train was carrying various goods from Madison, Illinois to Conway, Pennsylvania.

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — A mechanical axle failure on a railroad car caused dozens of freight cars to derail in Ohio near the Pennsylvania state line Friday night, federal investigators said Sunday. A smoldering tangle of vehicles, some carrying hazardous materials, supported the evacuation order.

Michael Graham, board member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said at a press conference that the three-man train crew received a mechanical warning “shortly before the derailment” but said the board was still working to determine which carriage experienced the problem.

About 50 vehicles derailed in East Palestine around 9 p.m. Friday as a train was carrying various goods from Madison, Illinois to Conway, Pennsylvania, rail operator Norfolk Southern said. There were no reports of injuries to the crew, residents, or rescuers.

Graham said investigators also determined the exact “derailment point” but did not disclose it on Sunday. He said the information would be included in a preliminary investigation report expected around next month.

CONNECTED: 50-car train derailment causes big fire and evacuation in Ohio

Eastern Palestinian officials said on Sunday that emergency services were monitoring but keeping their distance from the fire, saying that restoration work could not begin while the cars were smoldering. Evacuations are being carried out within a 1-mile (1.6 km) radius, officials said, as environmental authorities monitor air quality monitors with caution.

Mayor Trent Conaway, who declared a state of emergency in the village, said one man was arrested for walking around the barricades at night until he crashed. He warned that more arrests would follow if people did not stay away.

“I don’t know why anyone would want to be there; you breathe poisonous fumes if you’re that close,” he said, stressing that air quality monitors away from the fire showed no problems, and city water is safe because it is fed by groundwater unaffected by any material that went . into streams. EPA teams worked to remove contaminants from streams and monitor water quality.

Fire Chief Keith Drabik said it was very important to avoid the area “because a train carrying hazardous materials has crashed in the city and is on fire. There is nothing easier than this.”

On Sunday, sheriffs went door to door to count the remaining residents and urge people in the evacuation zone to leave the area. “We are asking residents to evacuate and cooperate,” officials said in a statement. Schools and village offices will be closed on Monday, and officials will determine in the afternoon whether school closures will be extended. Businesses in the evacuation zone will not be allowed to open on Monday, officials said.

Norfolk Southern said 20 of more than 100 vehicles were classified as carrying hazardous materials, defined as cargo that could pose any hazard, “including flammable, combustible or environmental risks.” Some cars had vinyl chloride and at least one “intermittently released” its contents through a pressure relief device.

Officials said Sunday afternoon that the vehicles also carried flammable liquids, butyl acrylate and benzene residues 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 crash poses no long-term health risk to residents,” the community’s Facebook page says in a FAQ. “Vinyl chloride and benzene can cause cancer in people exposed to high concentrations in the workplace for many years; however, there is no indication that any potential exposure that occurred after the derailment increases the risk of cancer or any other long-term health effects for members of the community.”

The NTSB said that only 10 hazardous materials wagons derailed, and five of them were carrying vinyl chloride, not 14 as previously stated. And officials again stressed late Saturday night that they had not confirmed a vinyl chloride release other than from pressure relief devices operating as designed.

Vinyl chloride, used to make polyvinyl chloride hard plastic resin in various plastic products, is associated with an increased risk of liver and other cancers, according to the federal government’s National Cancer Institute. Norfolk Southern was required to provide a fact sheet with a list of all chemicals involved.

The evacuation order covered the homes of 1,500 to 2,000 residents in the city of 4,800 to 4,900, but officials said it was not known exactly how many were affected. About eight residents remained in the emergency shelter. Norfolk Southern opened a help center in the village to collect information from affected residents; Village authorities said 75 people came to the center on Saturday and about 100 were there on Sunday morning.

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