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Chemical Reaction in Riverside County Rail Car Shuts Down Part of 215 Freeway, Prompts Evacuations

A chemical reaction inside a tank along the railway that parallels the 215 Freeway in Perris has prompted firefighters in Riverside County to shut down part of that road and evacuate the surrounding area.

Around 7:40 p.m. Thursday night, Cal Fire Riverside County got a call about the chemical leak, when someone discovered a large plume of smoke coming from a rail car.

Initially, the plume of smoke drifted toward the City of Perris, affecting the air quality for the city until the smoke dissipated.

Investigation with a hazardous materials team led officials to determine there is a chemical, known as styrene, in the tank of the rail car that is overheating due to some kind of chemical reaction.

“Styrene is a chemical used in latex, synthetic rubber and polystyrene resins, which are used in plastic packages, disposable cups and containers, insulation and other products,” the CDC says on its website. Exposure is possible by breathing it in through the air. Exposure to large amounts of styrene can irriate the eyes and respiratory passages.

Styrene is found indoors due to operating photocopiers and laser printers, and from cigarette smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s also found naturally in some plants.

Typically, Cal Fire Riverside County Chief John Crater said, styrene sits at around 85 degrees Farenheit. Right now, the roughly 188,000 pounds of styrene in the tank had reached temperatures up to 323 degrees.

The tank car was also at one point leaking from the pressure relief valve, and as of 6 a.m. was still leaking from the top portion of the tank, according to Captain Oscar Torres of the Riverside County Fire Department Hazardous Materials Response Team.

There is a chance of explosion, Cal Fire Riverside said, due to the pressure building in the full tank as the styrene continues to heat up.

If an explosion does occur, it “would still be a violent release,” but nothing close to the explosive power of a propane tank explosion or something similar, officials said. However, it is considered a serious incident.

According to officials at a press conference held at 6 a.m. Friday morning, the situation is too dangerous for even firefighters to approach the rail car immediately. They are waiting to approach the car until the styrene cools down, which will tell officials that the chemical reaction that is producing the extreme heat is slowing down and the risk of explosion is lower.

Officials are unsure how long the situation will last, and are waiting to see if the heat of the hot summer day in the Inland Empire will increase the temperature in the tank and increase the risk of explosion.

Crater said that the cool-down process could take anywhere between one and three days. According to Torres, the temperature was beginning to decline at the time of the press conference, and was down to about 304 degrees.

An evacuation order has been put into place for the area within a half-mile radius of Harvill Avenue and Oleander Avenue. All homes and businesses in that radius have been evacuated as of 6 a.m. — around 170 homes in the area.

A shelter was established at Pinecate Middle School for those evacuated from the immediate area.

Roads have also been shut down, including the 215 Freeway in both directions from Van Buren to the Ramona Expressway. The rail line for Metrolink has also been shut down.

CHP Seargeant Chuck Murray shared extra road closures at the press conference. Those included:

  • Both directions of the 215 Freeway, closed on the northbound side from the Ramona Expressway and on the southbound side from Cactus.
  • Harvey Knox on-ramps to both directions of the 215 Freeway.

The CHP also has detour routes set up for drivers in the area.


Source: NBC Los Angeles

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