Chemical leak from rail car in Riverside County is a ‘critical situation’

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A chemical leak from a rail car has shut down the 215 Freeway in both directions in Riverside County and prompted the evacuation of more than 100 homes, on Friday morning.

The Riverside County Fire Department responded to reports of large plumes of smoke coming from a rail car parked on the tracks near Harvill and Oleander avenues in Perris around 7:40 p.m. on Thursday, according to John Crater, Cal Fire Riverside County division chief, during a news conference Friday morning. A hazmat team was sent to the scene, he said.

Officials discovered that a rail car had spilled a substance styrene, a highly volatile liquid typically used in plastic and rubber products, and was dangerously overheated.

Residents and businesses within a half-mile radius of the affected area were ordered to evacuate, and parts of Interstate 215 were shut down, Crater said. At least 170 residents were evacuated as of Friday morning, officials said.

A chemical leak from a rail cars located on a spur just off the main tracks has led to the closure of a portion of the 210 freeway in both directions in Perris.

(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Styrene typically stays at about 85 degrees, but it had reached at least 323 degrees, officials said. The situation could have serious implications on the area’s infrastructure, Crater said.

Though officials at the Friday morning news conference said the chemical was still reacting, the temperature had dropped to around 304 degrees. An investigation is underway to determine what caused the reaction, a spokesperson for the Riverside County Fire Department said.

The train car is “red hot” and too dangerous for officials to approach, Crater said, and officials are using drones to monitor the situation. The train was stopped at the time of the reported incident.

Officials are monitoring whether outside temperatures could affect the activity within the rail car as the day goes on.

Crater spoke with experts across the country who said it could take up to three days for the situation to cool down. “It could get worse before it gets better,” Crater said, adding that if heat and pressure build in the car, it could lead to some “sort of violent explosion.”

“We are still in a pretty critical situation,” Crater said.

According to the Riverside County Fire Department‘s website, evacuation orders are in place for the areas north of Markham Street, east of Donna Lane, south of Nandina Avenue and west of Patterson Avenue. A shelter was set up at Pinecate Middle School for those evacuated from the immediate area.

Metrolink trains will also be unavailable through the evacuation area, officials said.

The 215 is closed in both directions south of Van Buren and north of Ramona Expressway.

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