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Residents can return after air deemed safe from train derailment in Ohio

(Ohio National Guard via AP)
(Ohio National Guard via AP)

The fire chief in Ohio’s small town of East Palestine has said that evacuated residents can safely return to the area where crews burned toxic chemicals after a train derailed five days ago near the Pennsylvania state line.

Around-the-clock testing inside and outside the evacuation zone around the village of East Palestine and a sliver of Pennsylvania showed the air had returned to normal levels that would have been seen before the derailment, said James Justice of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

“Hundreds and hundreds of data points we’ve collected over the time show the air quality is safe,” he said.

Residents were ordered to evacuate when authorities decided on Monday to release and burn five tankers filled with vinyl chloride, sending hydrogen chloride and the toxic gas phosgene into the air.

Train Derailment Ohio
Ohio National Guard team members prepare to enter an incident area to assess remaining hazards with a lightweight inflatable decontamination system in East Palestine, Ohio (Ohio National Guard via AP)

Monitors did detect toxins in the air during the controlled burn at the derailment site, but other samples outside that area did not, Mr Justice said.

The village’s mayor expressed relief that the evacuation had been lifted.

“We know everybody’s frustrated. Everybody wants to be in their homes. We did the best we can,” said mayor Trent Conaway.

“The number one goal is public safety, and we accomplished that. Nobody was injured, nobody died.”

He credited the village’s part-time firefighters and their quick response to the derailment for saving the town.

Some residents have said they were worried about returning even if authorities say it is safe to go home.

It is unlikely though, Mr Justice said, that there be would any dangerous levels of toxins inside any homes or businesses based on readings from air monitors around the community.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine said some residents may want to wait until their homes are checked. Rail operator Norfolk Southern Railway said it would provide testing and continue to operate its family assistance centre “for the foreseeable future”.

“It’s very understandable you may want that testing done before you go back in your house,” Mr DeWine said.

Train Derailment Air Quality Explainer
About 50 cars, including 10 carrying hazardous materials, derailed in a fiery crash on Friday night (Gene J Puskar, File/AP)

The governor said the railroad will have to pay for the clean-up and make sure something like this does not happen again.

“The burden is upon them to assure the public that what they do everyday is safe,” Mr DeWine said.

Testing on rivers, streams and drinking water wells will continue throughout the area and in the nearby Ohio River.

Kurt Kollar, a representative from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, said contaminants from the derailed tanker cars spilled into some waterways and were toxic to fish, but he added that data so far indicates the drinking water was protected.

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 on 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, but some people complained about smelling chlorine and smoke in the air and having headaches.

At least one lawsuit has been filed over the derailment. An East Palestine business owner and two other residents sued Norfolk Southern in federal court on Tuesday, alleging negligence by the company and exposure to toxic substances as a result.

They are 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.