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A scary morning in Lake City, then the all-clear to go home

More than 100 residents were told to leave after a rail car leaked anhydrous ammonia

Mar 17, 2007 | Star Tribune

More than 100 Lake City residents were greeted by police knocking on their doors early Saturday morning to tell them to leave: A railway car was leaking anhydrous ammonia within a few miles of town.

The evacuees arrived at the Red Cross shelter at a city church, some in a panic.

"Some were confused. Some smelled the gas, some didn't," said Mayor Katie Himanga, who had spoken with residents waiting at First Lutheran Church on the town's west side. "They needed to know what happened."

A 28,000 gallon tanker was leaking the chemical from a faulty cap that prompted the closure of Hwy. 61 for several hours. It took crews until about 12:40 p.m. to seal the cap and give the all-clear, Himanga told reporters at City Hall.

"There were no injuries, and we don't expect any long-term environmental impact," she said.

The plan was to move the tanker onto a side track where the remaining gas, which is used as farm fertilizer, would be transferred to a truck, said Doug Neville of the state Public Safety Department.

Hwy. 61, closed after the leak was discovered about 6:30 a.m., was reopened at 1 p.m. But the southbound railway remained closed, with several trains waiting up the line near Red Wing, at 5:30 p.m. Amtrak trains were rerouted.

The defective car was an older model that was part of a 37-car train owned by the Iowa, Chicago and Eastern Railroad, spokesman Jafar Karim said by telephone. He said workers hoped to move the leaky car owned by a railroad customer to a side track by early evening and reopen the southbound lines. He said the car was picked up Saturday morning in St. Paul.

Mayor Himanga said the city's emergency plan worked well, and sirens sounded when the leak was discovered. Several residents said they heard the sirens, which also sound when firefighters are sent out, the mayor said.

One of those evacuated was Jeanette Blethen, who said she was still in a panic when police told her to leave her small home. She scraped enough frost off her car windshield to drive to the Red Cross shelter at First Lutheran.

"I was pretty frantic when I came here," she said, while waiting for the all-clear. "The Red Cross is very hospitable and they did a great job being here to calm you down."

Blethen, 64, who lives about 100 feet from the tracks, said shortly before she heard police knocking on her door, her pet Angel, a tropical bird, started honking like a goose and woke her up about 8 a.m.

"Why did my bird make that noise that I never heard from her before?" she asked. "I said 'Angel are you OK?' And then boom, boom, boom. The police were knocking at the door." When she looked toward the tracks she saw a mist around them and smelled something funny as she left, Blethen said. She closed the house up tight because Angel's cage was too big to get in her car.

After the all-clear, Blethen hurried home.

"Angel is fine. She is her normal self now," she said, the yellow, green and orange bird perched on her shoulder.

Evacuations started about 7:45 a.m. in an area that includes a mobile home park and some businesses along Hwy. 61. Evacuees stayed with relatives or friends, or were taken to the emergency shelter.

The mayor said that only a small amount of the 28,000 gallons of anhydrous ammonia leaked from the car.

The leak was detected about 6:30 a.m., and the 37-car train was moved 3 miles south into a less populated area, authorities said, but the fumes kept building.

One resident told the Red Wing Republican Eagle newspaper that she went to let her dog out at 6:30 a.m. and smelled a faint chemical odor. Five minutes later, she went to let the dog back in and had to cover her face with her jacket in order to breathe.

Some residents in southern Lake City complained of feeling sick, and people on the north end of the town on Lake Pepin also reported headaches and nausea, the newspaper reported.

Hwy. 61 was closed from Hwy. 63 in Lake City south to Hwy. 42 in Kellogg.

The tracks are owned by Canadian Pacific. Speaking on behalf of the Iowa, Chicago and Eastern Railroad, Canadian Pacific spokesman Jeff Johnson said 11 of the 37 cars were carrying hazardous materials. Nineteen were empty.

Ammonia fumes were detected 15 miles to the north in Red Wing, which prompted police there to investigate if the rail car had been leaking as it came through there. But Police Chief Tim Sletten said officers checked the tracks and low-lying areas and found nothing dangerous.

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