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Evacuation orders lifted after chemical leak from rail car in Perris closes 215 Freeway

CBS Los Angeles 8/13/2022 CBSLA Staff

A large-scale investigation was underway near Perris Friday after an undisclosed chemical leak from a rail car prompted evacuations and freeway closures. 

Saturday morning, firefighters were working to cool the rail car, despite high temperatures expected for the weather in the area in the afternoon. 

"We're continuing to monitor it," said CAL FIRE Batt. Chief Dustin Reed. "Hopefully by 8 p.m. we'll have some better news." 

Reed added firefighters were using a hose to continuously pump water through the rail car and bring the temperature down. 

By 9:15 a.m. all evacuation orders were lifted. 

The spill was reported at around 7:40 p.m. on Thursday at a railway that parallels the 215 Freeway, just north of Perris on Harvill Avenue and Oleander Avenue.  According to authorities, the leak came from a tank that was "overheating and possibly preparing to explode." Several calls to 911 reported a large plume of smoke above the rail yard. 

A drone with an infrared camera showed the heat that's being generated inside the insulated rail car.

"You don't know what kind of damage that's going to cause," said Mario Eid.

"People potentially getting hurt," Anthony Eid added. 

Anthony and Mario own Perris Auto Repair Center, which sits in the middle of the danger zone. 

"So many emails and voicemails from people concerned about their cars too," Anthony said. "It's not just us, like, I got a shop full of cars. What are they going to do if something happens to their cars?"

Still, others are worried about what could happen to their homes. Deputies went door-to-door overnight to evacuate some 170 residents. 

"At this point, we are trending in the right direction, but it's still too dangerous for any mitigation efforts to take place," Cal Fire Riverside Capt. Oscar Torres said. 

Authorities disclosed that the material was styrene, a chemical often used to make foam products, latex and synthetic rubber. The tank is holding about 1,000 pounds of the chemical.

The tanker arrived at this private property via a private carrier on August 3, after being filled in Texas 50 days ago. The other nearby tankers are carrying flammable materials. 

"Right now, the biggest challenge we're facing is waiting out the reaction with the car in question and wait to see if we continue to trend in the way we're going, that the temperatures are going to stop dropping significantly more so that we can actually do some interventions," Torres said. 

Some neighbors said they already smelled an odor coming from the tankers Thursday night, and that has the Eid brothers worried. 

"It's not a joke. It's not a game," Mario said. "It's a dangerous chemical." 

"And somebody should be held accountable for it," Anthony added. 

Authorities estimated that the situation could last for up to three days, and matters could be further complicated by the extremely hot temperatures in the area. 

It was not immediately clear how the tank began leaking.

The evacuation order was issued for more than 170 residences within a half mile radius of the site of the leak, affecting homes north of Markham Street, east of Donna Lane, south of Nandina Avenue and west of Patterson Avenue. 

Area affected by Riverside County Fire Department evacuation orders. CBSLA © Provided by CBS Los Angeles Area affected by Riverside County Fire Department evacuation orders. CBSLA

An evacuation center was set up at Pinacate Middle School.

Both sides of the 215 Freeway were also completely closed from Van Buren Avenue to Ramona Expressway. The freeway was reopened by Saturday morning. 

Metrolink rail service to Perris was affected by the leak as they were unable to travel through the evacuation area. 

Students and staff at Mead Valley Elementary School were also evacuated Friday "out of an abundance of caution," said Riverside Fire Department. Students were transported from the elementary school to Citrus High School for pickup. 

Rail car chemical leak near Perris prompts road closure on 215 Freeway, forces evacuations 11:04 © Provided by CBS Los Angeles Rail car chemical leak near Perris prompts road closure on 215 Freeway, forces evacuations 11:04
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