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The derailment, which occurred on February 3, caused a fire that lasted several days. Officials decided to initiate a controlled release of the chemicals to mitigate the risk of an explosion; all residents within one mile of the crash site were told to evacuate, although they were permitted to return to their homes on February 8.
Norfolk Southern provided the EPA with a list of cars affected by the crash and the chemicals they were carrying. The company said all five cars containing vinyl chloride have been “stabilized” after the material was burned by crews, forming massive plumes of dark smoke that were visible in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania.
Vinyl chloride is described by the National Cancer Institute as a carcinogen linked to a rare form of liver cancer called hepatic angiosarcoma, as well as lymphoma, leukemia, and various forms of brain and lung cancers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration only permits exposure of one part per million during an industrial worker’s eight-hour shift.
“If a water supply is contaminated, vinyl chloride can enter household air when the water is used for showering, cooking, or laundry,” the agency said.
One train car containing ethylene glycol monobutyl ether currently has an “unknown status,” according to Norfolk Southern. The highly combustible liquid is used to manufacture paints and varnish; ingestion or skin contact can cause headache, nausea, vomiting, and dizziness, according to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A second car was carrying isobutylene, a flammable gas that can induce “dizziness, drowsiness, and unconsciousness” when moderate concentrations are inhaled, according to another report from the agency. Norfolk Southern said there are “no signs” of a breach for the car containing the substance.
A third train car was transporting ethylhexyl acrylate, a combustible liquid used to make paints and plastics. The amount of the chemical remaining in the car is “pending,” according to Norfolk Southern. The substance has been identified as a carcinogen in laboratory experiments, according to a report from the National Library of Medicine.
Government regulators and public utilities have expressed concern over chemicals released from the derailment. West Virginia American Water, the largest investor-owned water utility in the state of West Virginia, said in a statement that the company has not detected any change to raw water from its Ohio River intake but has “enhanced its treatment processes” as a “precautionary measure.” No drinking water advisories are currently in place for customers.
Federal investigators said an issue with a rail car axle caused the derailment. Footage obtained by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette showed that the Norfolk Southern train had traveled more than 20 miles with a malfunctioning rail car axle. National Transportation Safety Board Member Michael Graham confirmed during a news conference that there were “preliminary indications of mechanical issues” for the axle, according to a report from CBS Pittsburgh.