Why the vinyl chloride on the derailed train needed to be burned

As a former emergency manager & hazardous materials technician let me explain a high-level overview of the response to the Ohio train derailment & the release of hazardous materials into the community & why some decisions may have been made. Specifically to let the material burn.

An Emergency Manger presented with the scene below needs to first identify the materials the train is carrying. This can be accomplished several ways.
1. The Engineer has the Bill of Lading and log of Hazardous Materials
2. Locate the UN Placard Number
3. Contact the RR.

Let's assume only a Placard UN number is available on the rail car. The UN number reads 1086. We immediately consult our emergency response guidebook looking for UN Number 1086 which identifies the material as vinyl chloride and directs us to Guide 116P for emergency response.

Before we have even look at the response guide the P in the Guide Number (Guide 116P) concerns me. The P means the material may undergo violent polymerization if heated or contaminated — which could cause its container to rupture or explode.

No Good. BLEVE Concerns.

Let's review the guide. We see the immediate evacuation precautions that should be taken. A reverse 911 that calls all citizens in the evacuation area should be initiated. I'm also concerned that this material may be explosive when mixed with air.

As we start to then dive deeper into the science of the material vinyl chloride, we find that it's highly volatile and has a boiling point of 7.9 F.

If one of the tanks is damaged, we have a disaster on our hands. We have a ticking bomb sitting on the ground.

We are at risk of a casteropheic BLEVE, also known as Boiling Liquid Vapor Explosion. I'm unfamiliar with the quantity of material, but if it exploded, it could destroy the city. Let's not forget the boiling point is 7.9 F

A decision was made to allow a controlled burn of the pressure release values to minimize the potential of a BLEVE. At this point of the response, the options were limited, and we haven't even begun to discuss it's impact with other chemicals in other containers.

Given my limited facts, I see no option but to allow the material to burn. But this doesn't dissolve the government in its responsibility to inform the public.

In this scenario, honest and open communication with the media and community stakeholders should have happened swiftly. Immediate precautions should have been taken to protect waterways, and modeling should have been performed for toxic fallout.

This is where the government failed! They failed to warn the public of the hazards, and the media was silent. Emergency Managers need to stop operating in darkness!

Originally tweeted by Ryan Cunningham (@rycunni) on February 14, 2023.

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