Toxic Chemical Cleanup Continues After Train Derailment

Feb. 7, 2023
A controlled release and burn of toxic chemicals from at train derailment on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border aims to mitigate further risks.

A train derailment that occurred on the evening of Feb. 3, 2023, is still causing issues for the community along the Ohio-Pennsylvania state line. Of the 50 cars involved in the incident in East Palestine, Ohio, five were transporting vinyl chloride, which is used to make polyvinyl chloride hard plastic resin.

To mitigate risks, on Feb. 6 crews released the toxic chemicals from the five derailed tanker cars that were in danger of exploding and began burning them after warning residents to leave immediately or face the possibility of death.

The controlled release, which involves using a small charge to blow a hole in the cars, allowing the material to go into a trench and burning it off before it's released in the air, occurred during daytime hours in hopes that it would allow the fumes to disperse more quickly and prevent the rail cars from exploding and sending shrapnel and other debris flying through the neighborhood, according to Scott Deutsch of Norfolk Southern Railway.

Officials warned the controlled burn would send phosgene and hydrogen chloride into the air. Phosgene is a highly toxic gas that can cause vomiting and breathing trouble and was used as a weapon in World War I.

A CNN story notes “If a water supply is contaminated, vinyl chloride can enter household air when the water is used for showering, cooking or laundry.”

Federal investigators say the cause of the derailment was a mechanical issue with a rail car axle.

An episode of Process Safety with Trish & Traci discussed whether transporting dangerous cargo via trains is the right way to go. “If it is, then I think we need to make sure that the appropriate maintenance is done,” says Trish Kerin, director of the ICheme Safety Centre. “… let's maintain it appropriately and monitor it and have the assurance that it's actually going to function the way we need it to so that we can continue with safe operation. So, it really is just those fundamental process safety principles, which is interesting because we're talking about trains. Something you wouldn't necessarily associate with process safety principles.”