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Anhydrous ammonia leak contained near Lake City

Jan 1, 2007 | The Republican Eagle

Authorities successfully capped a leaking rail car five hours after anhydrous ammonia vapors forced more than 100 Lake City residents from their homes Saturday morning.

The Lake City Emergency Operations Center declared a successful conclusion to the incident shortly before 1 p.m. and reopened U.S. Highway 61 by midafternoon.

"We won't know the actual cause and have determine why the valve on that car failed," said Jafar Karim, a Iowa, Chicago & Eastern Railroad spokesman.

The leaking car was part of a southbound IC&E train operating on Canadian Pacific tracks, officials from both railroads said. They will conduct a joint investigation over the next few days.

The tanker carrying the ammonia was an older model that the IC&E train picked up for a customer this morning at the Canadian Pacific yard in St. Paul, Karim said.

The IC&E crew did not have a replacement valve cap onboard and one wasn't readily available in the area, which complicated efforts to stop the leak. But a hazardous chemical team managed to secure the tanker by using a cap designed for a newer tanker, EOC officials said.

There were no immediate reports of anyone injured or hospitalized, a dispatcher with the Wabasha County Sheriff’s Office said.

The leak is believed to have started north of Lake City before dawn.

Lake City Mayor Katie Himanga said one of the first calls came in from the Federal Mogul foundry after the ventilation system pulled in fumes as the train passed. The train continued on for several miles before stopping in a relatively unpopulated area.

When awakened, some residents in south Lake City complained of feeling sick. People living in the Goodhue County or north end of Lake City also reported minor headaches and nausea.

Officials closed Highway 61 around 7 a.m. and moved the train three miles south. But the fumes kept building.

Lake City activated its Emergency Operations Center around 7:30 a.m. so firefighters, police and ambulance personnel could begin an orderly evacuation of homes in the southern tip of Lake City. People went to First Lutheran Church on U.S. Highway 63 west of town.

Clair Abbott, a Red Cross volunteer from Rochester, said 38 people registered at the center between the time it opened at 8 a.m. and about 11 a.m. The rest of the evacuees went to stay with family members and friends, she said. About 15 Red Cross and church volunteers were on hand to assist.

Ronald Bost, a Red Cross volunteeer from Lake City, said the volunteers had just participated in a training exercise three weeks earlier in Wabasha and were well-prepared for an actual emergency.

At the evacuation center, Jennifer Meyer said she had just begun getting breakfast for her two sons when a police officer knocked on their door at the Edge O’ Town mobile home park and informed them that they would have to leave immediately.

“I picked up the boys and got out,” she said.

The boys’ father was able to pick them up and take them to Rochester.

“At least I know my kids are safe,” Meyer said.

Authorities recommended "sheltering in place" for those residents not evacuated. That means people were to stay in their homes unless instructed otherwise.

Anhydrous ammonia is extremely toxic and may be fatal if inhaled. Vapors are irritating and corrosive, according to the federal Emergency Response Guidebook.

The symptoms of exposure include a harsh burning sensation in the nose, a bad taste or stinging in the mouth, as well as headache, nausea and difficulty breathing.

First-aid treatment includes moving to a fresh air source in the contaminated area or staying indoors in place where fumes are not as high. People should flush skin and eyes with running water for at least 20 minutes, the guidebook said. Effects of inhalation may be delayed.

The fumes were detected 15 miles to the north in Red Wing early in the day. That prompted Red Wing police to investigate if the rail car started leaking as it came through that city. Police Chief Tim Sletten said officers checking the tracks and low-lying areas had found nothing dangerous as of 8:30 a.m.

Train service halted on the Canadian Pacific line. Trains were stopped at Minneiska, Winona and the Twin Cities, but they were expected to resume by evening. First, railroad crews had to move the car to a siding so the IC&E train could proceed.

The incident caused some Lake City residents to be concerned about an anhydrous ammonia tank located in Lake City. Mike Halverson, who lives near the tank, said he wanted a better warning system for residents in the event of a leak.

Himanga said that tank is filled only in the spring when the ammonia is needed for agricultural use, and an emergency plan is in place for it. But that didn’t satisfy Halverson.

“I’m a little emotional about it,” he said. “If I weren’t for people cell-phoning one another, how would we have known” about the train leak.

Himanga said the emergency siren was sounded after the leak was detected, and the information was posted on the city’s cable TV site as soon as possible.

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