Ohioans who live near where a train filled with hazardous chemicals derailed last week were allowed to return home Wednesday, officials said.
The evacuation order was lifted after air and water samples were analyzed overnight and deemed safe, East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday.
The Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic chemicals derailed while traveling from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania, on Friday in the tiny Ohio village of about 5,000 people near the Pennsylvania border.
Of the more than 100 cars, about 20 were carrying hazardous materials, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, which said 10 of those cars derailed, including five that were carrying the dangerous chemical vinyl chloride.
The chemicals put the cars at risk of exploding so officials performed a controlled burn of vinyl chloride from the five rail cars, sending flames and thick black smoke billowing into the sky at the derailment site.
Ahead of the controlled release, officials again went door to door to make sure residents evacuated the area. Half of East Palestine’s 4,800 residents were forced to leave their homes over the weekend, along with a handful of homes in Pennsylvania.
Analysts monitored the air over the area for the past 24 hours, James Justice, a representative of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, told CNN.
“All of the readings we’ve been recording in the community have been at normal concentrations, normal backgrounds, which you find in almost any community,” he said, and that’s “what led to the fire chief lifting the evacuations today.”
Justice added that the agency reviewed “literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of data points that we’ve collected over time to show that the air quality in the town is safe.”
Some chemicals did make it into the waterways, which were “immediately toxic to fish,” Ohio EPA representative Kurt Kollar said Wednesday. “But all of the information and data to date” shows that drinking water was protected, he added.
According to Ohio EPA spokesperson James Lee, the agency constructed earthen dams “to capture contaminants that may leave the derailment site” and the installation of “high volume aeration stations to help remove contaminants from Sulfur Run” stream, Lee said.
The train was also carrying combustible liquids, butyl acrylate and residue of benzene from prior shipments, officials said.
Workers used small explosives to blow a tiny hole in the five rail cars carrying vinyl chloride, which then spilled into a trench where it was burned, CNN reported.
The controlled burn sent phosgene and hydrogen chloride into the air with phosgene — a highly toxic gas that could lead to vomiting and trouble breathing. It’s so potent soldiers used it as a weapon in World War I.
Breathing in vinyl chloride can cause dizziness, sleepiness and headaches, according to the Ohio Department of Health, and can even cause someone to pass out and die if they do not get fresh air.
Breathing in vinyl chloride over many years has also been linked to an increased risk of cancer in the liver, brain, lungs and blood.
One person was arrested Sunday night for going around the barricades and going right up to the crash site, East Palestine Mayor Trent Conway said.
Federal investigators confirmed that a mechanical issue with a car axle caused the fiery derailment. NTSB official Michael Graham said at a news conference Sunday that the three-member train crew received an alert about the mechanical defect “shortly before the derailment.”
Nobody was injured when the train crashed.