A chemical leak from a railroad tank car prompted Southern California officials on Friday to shut down a major highway and evacuate more than 100 homes due to fears of an explosion.
Officials said the train car was leaking a chemical called styrene, which is used to make plastic products. Styrene is a highly flammable substance that can cause skin and eye irritation and is toxic if inhaled, according to the National Institutes of Health. One of the main concerns was that the car would explode as pressure built up inside the car and temperatures rose throughout the day.
The train car was stopped on a railroad that runs parallel to the 215 Freeway, near commercial businesses and a residential neighborhood just north of Perris, California, 75 miles inland from Los Angeles. Styrene is typically kept at about 85 degrees, but the temperature in the container had reached at least 323 degrees, officials said.
“This hasn’t been seen in a long time and it’s rare,” Cal Fire Riverside County Division Chief John Crater said at a news conference early Friday. “So we’re kind of in uncharted territory with this.”
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No attempt to contain or contain the leak has been made so far, fire officials said.
“Right now it’s too dangerous to get close to it,” Crater said. “We’ve been flying our drones to get video footage … the rail car in the FLIR (thermal) footage is red hot.”
It is unclear what caused the leak. Officials admitted at the press conference that they had a lack of knowledge on how to handle the substance.
Crater said he had been on the phone all night with experts in other states who told him the leak could fix itself in two or three days.
Riverside County Fire Department Capt. Oscar Torres described the substance as “resin” at Friday’s press conference and said officials did not expect it to produce an explosion as powerful as a propane tanker.
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A local middle school said the Red Cross was running an evacuation and care center in its gym. The fire department continued to monitor the leak from the air.