A chemical leak from a railroad tank car led officials in Southern California on Friday to close a major highway and evacuate more than 100 homes amid fears of a potential explosion.
Officials said the wagon 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 is that the car will explode as pressure builds up inside the car and temperatures rise during the day.
The wagon is stopped on a railroad track parallel to the 215 Freeway, near commercial businesses and a residential area just north of Perris, California, located 75 miles inland from Los Angeles. The styrene is usually kept at around 85 degrees, but temperatures in the container have reached at least 323 degrees, officials said.
“It hasn’t been experienced in a while and it’s rare,” Cal Fire Riverside County Division Manager John Crater said at a news conference Friday morning. “So we’re kind of in uncharted territory with that.”
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No attempt to mitigate or approach the leak has been made so far, fire officials said.
“Right now, it’s too dangerous to go near it,” Crater said. “We flew our drones to get video footage…the wagon in the FLIR (thermal) footage is hot.”
It is not known what caused the leak. Officials admitted at the press conference that they did not know how to handle the substance.
Crater said he spent the night on the phone with experts from other states, who told him the leak could resolve itself in 2 or 3 days.
Riverside County Fire Captain Oscar Torres called the substance “resin” at Friday’s press conference and said officials did not expect it to produce as powerful an explosion as a tank truck transporting propane.
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Firefighters responded to the leak at 7:41 p.m. Thursday and close the 215 freeway. They put in place a evacuation perimeter early Friday morning, just before 1 a.m. and evacuated people from around 170 homes.
A local college said the Red Cross operated an evacuation and care center in its gymnasium. Firefighters continue to monitor the airborne leak.