Over 100 homes evacuated in Southern California over chemical leak as officials fear potential explosion

A chemical leak from a railroad tanker-train car led officials in Southern California on Friday to shut down a major freeway and evacuate more than 100 homes amid 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 during the day. 

The train car was stopped on a railway 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 temperatures in the container had reached at least 323 degrees, officials said. 

“This hasn’t been experienced in quite some time, and it’s rare,” John Crater, Cal Fire Riverside County division chief, said in a news conference early Friday. “So we’re kind of in uncharted territory with this.” 

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No attempts to mitigate or approach the leak have 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 conceded at the news conference that they had a lack of familiarity with how to deal with the substance. 

Crater said he had been on the phone all night with experts in other states, who told him the leak could resolve itself in two or three days. 

Riverside County Fire Department Captain Oscar Torres described the substance as “resin” at Friday’s news conference and said officials did not expect it would produce an explosion as powerful as a tanker carrying propane. 

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Fire crews responded to the leak at 7:41 p.m. Thursday and shut down the 215 freeway. They set up an evacuation perimeter early Friday just before 1 a.m. and evacuated people from about 170 homes. 

A local middle school said the Red Cross was running an evacuation and care center in its gym. The fire department was continuing to monitor the leak from the air.