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Crews conduct 'controlled release' of chemicals amid explosion concerns at train derailment in Columbiana County

Officials from Norfolk Southern termed the operation a 'success,' but plan to continue to monitor the area.

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — With concerns of a potential explosion connected to the train derailment in Columbiana County, a "controlled release" of chemicals inside the railroad cars took place on Monday afternoon.

During a briefing on Monday evening, officials from Norfolk Southern declared the operation a success. "We're very pleased with what took place," said Scott Deutsch of Norfolk Southern. "The detonation went perfect and we're already to a point where the cars are safe. They were not safe prior to this (controlled release)."

There is no word yet on when residents in East Palestine can return home. Mayor Trent Conaway said the one mile evacuation order remains in place. "We still don't know," he said when asked about a timetable. "We have to wait until the fires die down. The railroad company will have to go in and inspect the area, then we'll have to go from there."

You can watch Monday evening's briefing below:

Monday's controlled release came as Gov. Mike DeWine announced earlier in the day that the contents of five rail cars were "currently unstable and could potentially explode, causing deadly disbursement of shrapnel and toxic fumes."

The release began around 4:30 p.m., with officials estimating it could take up to three hours to complete. Residents and 3News reporters heard a large bang before seeing a massive plume of smoke billowing to the sky.

Drone footage from Photography Matters LLC captured the moment when an explosion sparked the start of the controlled release. You can see the footage below:

The plume of smoke was visible on our 3News weather radar.

Specifically, officials were concerned over the presence of vinyl chloride in five of the wrecked rail cars. WKYC's Monica Robins says while most people would experience only dizziness if they inhale the substance, prolonged or close exposure can lead to suffocation, nerve damage, or even liver cancer.

"We have some slightly elevated readings of the phosgene and the hydrogen chloride right at the burn location and only one minor hit for the hydrogen chloride downwind of the burn area but still within that exclusion zone," explained James Justice of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Earlier, Deutsch explained the process of the controlled release. It begins by creating a small hole in the tank car.

“This will allow the material to come out of the tank car," the official explained. "It will go into a pit and trench that we have dug and set up for this operation. Inside that trench will be flares lining that trench that then will light off the material.

Gov. DeWine also provided new information about the evacuation order. He said the evacuation zone, following new modeling information, includes a one mile by two mile area surrounding East Palestine, which includes both Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Gov. DeWine said authorities have been sent back into area neighborhoods to knock on doors and ensure everybody in the evacuation zone has left.

"You need to leave. You just need to leave. We are ordering you to leave," Gov. DeWine said of those within the impacted area. "This is a matter of life and death.”

You can watch the entire press conference in the video below: 

The Columbiana County Sheriff also issued a warning Sunday night that those who ignore the evacuation order “may be arrested.”

“Misconduct in an emergency, which is a fourth degree misdemeanor if only adults are in the household, and a first degree misdemeanor if children are in the household,” according to a statement on the sheriff’s Facebook page. “Further charges of endangering children will apply also. There is a high probability of a toxic gas release and or explosion. Again, we will be enforcing the evacuation zone. Please, for your own safety, remove your families from danger. Thank You for your cooperation in this difficult situation.”

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