Prolonged Hazmat Operations at Ohio Train Derailment

Hazmat crews and other emergency responders spent days dealing with a train derailment that occurred in eastern Ohio Feb. 3. Overseeing a mandatory evacuation and air and water monitoring were some of the long-running issues facing emergency officials.

WOSO and other news outlets reported that 50 cars on a Norfolk Southern train derailed near East Palestine, Ohio, which is near the Pennsylvania state line, about 9 p.m. Friday while en route from Madison, Ill. to Conway Pa.

Also Read: 3 Lessons from Recent Train Derailments

Some of the derailed cars experienced a “drastic temperature change,” according to a press release from Gov. Mike DeWine’s office. In a Monday news conference, DeWine said, “The vinyl chloride contents of five rail cars are currently unstable and could potentially explode causing deadly disbursement of shrapnel and toxic fumes.”

The train was carrying the known carcinogens benzene and vinyl chloride, according to the Columbiana County EMA’s Facebook page.

“There is a high probability of a toxic gas release and or explosion,” the EMA posted Sunday night.

To reduce the threat of explosion and shrapnel, Norfolk Southern planned to make small holes in the cars to release the gas.

On Monday a Norfolk Southern Railway told MSN that the controlled release last between one to three hours, depending how much chemical has burned off already.

“We’re going to place a small shaped charge; it’s going to create a hole about 2 to 3 inches into the tank car. This will allow the material to come out of the tank car, it’ll go into a pit and trench that we have dug and set up for this operation. Inside that trench will be flares … That will then light off the material,” the official said.

The chemical release was successfully completed Monday afternoon and the burn-off continued past nightfall.

Also Read: Study Looks to Predict Chemical, Airborne Threat Movement

Ten of the derailed cars carried hazardous materials, five of which include vinyl chloride, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Firefighters from three states responded, Mayor Trent Conaway told USA Today, adding that single-digit temperatures complicated response efforts by causing water to freeze as trucks pumped it in.

The evacuation order was for a 1-mile by 2-mile sector around the incident site. About 5,000 residents evacuated with as many as 500 who refused to leave as of Monday.

Here’s a look back at some lessons learned from other train derailments.


Have eyes in the sky. If your team doesn’t have an unmanned aircraft program either start one or partner with an agency that does. Aerial footage will be invaluable, especially when the derailment is in a remote location.


Get a complete inventory of what the train is carrying. Even those cars not leaking at the time of the crash may later become compromised as the cleanup work gets going.


Just because a rail car is empty doesn’t mean it is completely empty. There are almost certainly residuals from what it previously carried that can become a threat on their own or when mixed with other escaped or burning substances. Treat each car as a potential hazard.

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