Like many residents who live within a few miles of Norfolk Southern Railway’s Feb. 3 train derailment, Jerry Corbin evacuated before the railroad decided to conduct a controlled burn of five freight cars containing the toxic vinyl chloride on Feb. 6.
When he returned to his home in Darlington Township, Pennsylvania—around 1.4 miles from the crash site—Corbin discovered two surprises. Black debris that resemble ash was strewn all over his yard and on his roof, and an “undetonated blasting cap” landed in a pasture near his house.
On the evening of Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern train carrying 151 cars derailed in East Palestine, a village of 4,761 located in eastern Ohio near the Pennsylvania border.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), “38 rail cars derailed, and a fire ensued which damaged an additional 12 cars.”
Of the cars that derailed, 11 contained hazardous materials, the NTSB said.
Seeking to avoid an explosion, Norfolk Southern decided to release and burn vinyl chloride from five rail cars, which sent flames and thick black smoke billowing into the sky once more.
Corbin believes the blasting cap, which has a wire and is filled with cotton, was used to help detonate the cars in the controlled burn.
“It’s not real big. It would blow your hand off,” Corbin said of the blasting cap. “I contacted someone in the military and asked him about it. He said don’t have any static electricity around it, don’t drop it.”
Vinyl chloride is a chemical used to make PVC pipes and other products. The National Cancer Institute notes that vinyl chloride has been linked to cancers of the brain, lungs, blood, lymphatic system, and liver.
Other rail cars contained ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, isobutylene, and butyl acrylate, which are all used in the making of plastic products.
“The night of the crash, my wife and I were driving into East Palestine to go to the store, and we saw the fire and the smoke,” Corbin explained. “I have asthma, so even before there was an evacuation order, we packed a few bags and went to a hotel away from the area.”
Before the controlled burn, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine urged residents in a 1-mile by 2-mile area surrounding East Palestine—which included parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania—to evacuate.
During an initial phone conversation, the EPA said the ash on Corbin’s property was not from the derailment, Corbin said.
“Then they sent some people out, and they were astonished about what they saw,” Corbin said, adding that the EPA representatives took samples of the ash before they left.
“A few days later, some more people from the EPA stopped by and took more samples,” Corbin said. “I asked them to let me know what is in that ash before we plant our garden. We haven’t heard anything from them since.”