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Residents can return home after crews burned chemicals in derailed tanker cars

A man takes photos as a black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation on Monday after a train derailment. On Wednesday, authorities said residents were allowed to return to their homes.
Gene J. Puskar
/
AP
A man takes photos as a black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation on Monday after a train derailment. On Wednesday, authorities said residents were allowed to return to their homes.

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Evacuated residents can safely return to the Ohio village where crews burned toxic chemicals after a train derailed five days ago near the Pennsylvania state line, East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick said Wednesday.

Authorities in East Palestine had warned that burning vinyl chloride that was in five of the derailed tanker cars would send hydrogen chloride and the toxic gas phosgene into the air. They said Wednesday subsequent air monitoring hasn't detected dangerous levels inside or outside the mile-radius evacuation zone, which stretched into Pennsylvania. Drabick said air and water samples taken Tuesday from the evacuation area show it's now safe, and the evacuation order is lifted. He thanked state and federal officials and agencies that helped with the emergency response over the past few days.

James Justice of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said around-the-clock air monitoring has shown normal, un-concerning levels. Hundreds of data points from that "show that the air quality in the town is safe," he said.

He reiterated that there was a robust air monitoring system in place and data from that showed nothing at a level that would be cause for health concern. Monitors did detect toxins in the air during the controlled burn at the derailment site, but other samples outside that area did not.

Many nearby residents left shortly after the derailment, and others were ordered out before the controlled release of the chemicals because of concerns about serious health risks from it.

The commander of the Ohio National Guard previously said that members wearing protective gear would take readings inside homes, basements and businesses as officials aimed to ensure the air was safe before lifting the evacuation order.

Some residents have said they were worried about returning even if authorities say it's OK to go home.

The fire from the chemical release is no longer burning, and crews have started removing some of the wreckage.

About 50 cars, including 10 carrying hazardous materials, derailed in a fiery crash Friday night on the edge of East Palestine. Federal investigators say a mechanical issue with a rail car axle caused the derailment.

No injuries have been reported from the derailment or from the controlled release of the chemicals on Monday, but some people have complained about smelling chlorine and smoke in the air and having headaches.

Those just outside the evacuation zone in East Palestine and in neighboring Beaver County, Pennsylvania, had been urged to stay indoors as a precaution. Officials in neighboring counties have said air samples did not show any worrisome levels of contaminates.

At least one lawsuit has been filed over the derailment. An East Palestine business owner and two other residents sued the rail operator in federal court on Tuesday, alleging negligence by Norfolk Southern and exposure to toxic substances as a result. They're seeking to make it a class-action case for residents and businesses in the evacuated area and people who were physically harmed because of spilled chemicals at the site.

Norfolk Southern declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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