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Slowly releasing chemicals from the derailed train in Ohio could prevent an explosion

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In Ohio, officials have been working to avert a catastrophe at the site of a train derailment and prevent more harm from coming from the wreckage. The train crashed Friday night in East Palestine, a town about 75 miles south of Cleveland near the Ohio-Pennsylvania state line.

Reporter Julie Grant, with The Allegheny Front, is following the story. Hi, Julie.

JULIE GRANT: Hi there.

SUMMERS: So Ohio Governor Mike DeWine traveled this afternoon to East Palestine, where he met with local authorities and officials from the Environmental Protection Agency. What more can you tell us?

GRANT: Well, as you said, this derailment happened late Friday. There's been lots of talk about what to do with these cars. Some of them are filled with chemicals. This afternoon, authorities began what they called a controlled release, slowly allowing the chemicals to escape. They were afraid of the train cars exploding on their own, so with this release, it was all about gaining control to avert a potential catastrophe. Scott Deutsch of Norfolk Southern Railroad (ph) explained the process. They cut a hole in the cars so the material could leak into a trench, where they placed flares.

SCOTT DEUTSCH: This allows us to control that operation and not have the car react and do it itself.

GRANT: It was important to do this because five of the cars contained vinyl chloride, a chemical that was considered unstable, and the explosion could have sent shrapnel and toxics into the air in a one- or two-mile radius of this area of Ohio and neighboring Pennsylvania.

SUMMERS: And early on, authorities had warned people to evacuate. Did people seem to listen to that warning?

GRANT: Yeah. There was a call early on, and many people did leave, but several hundred stayed. Authorities started going door to door, urging people to get out of the area. And during the press conference, Governor DeWine explained the harm that could come to people who stayed. He became quite emphatic about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE DEWINE: Everyone in Pennsylvania and Ohio who's in this area, you know, you need to leave. You just need to leave. We're ordering you to leave. This is a matter of life and death.

GRANT: DeWine said people who didn't leave could be arrested, especially if they had children. But officials added they had conducted another canvass and more residents had left the area.

SUMMERS: You spoke to several people in the area over the weekend. What did they tell you?

GRANT: Well, some people were confused and afraid. I met Shawna Lewis (ph). She was with her 7-year-old at a community center looking for hotel information.

SHAWNA LEWIS: You know, my daughter was panicked. And it's just scary, you know? You don't know if the whole town's going to blow up. You just don't know.

SUMMERS: That sounds scary, indeed. I want to ask you, how dangerous are the chemicals that we're talking about that were being transported?

GRANT: The biggest concern is that chemical we mentioned earlier, vinyl chloride. It's used to make PVC plastic used in pipes, car parts, packaging materials, things like that. These applications aren't typically thought to harm people, but at room temperature, vinyl chloride is a gas, so you can breathe it in. It makes people dizzy sometimes, can cause headaches. It's also a known carcinogen.

SUMMERS: In the few seconds we have left, how often do trains travel through this area carrying hazardous materials?

GRANT: Well, freight trains are kind of a constant here. This train was traveling from Illinois to Pennsylvania. That's a state that's had a big increase in oil and gas drilling over the past decade, as well as new plastics manufacturing. And this means there's a lot of transport of hazardous substances.

SUMMERS: Julie Grant is a reporter with the Allegheny Front covering environmental issues in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Thank you, Julie.

GRANT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie Grant | The Allegheny Front