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Anhydrous leak forces evacuations in Lake City

Mar 17, 2007 |

Authorities evacuated more than 100 residents in southern Lake City this morning after fumes from a rail car leaking anhydrous ammonia became overpowering.

The evacation began around 7:45 a.m., and evacuees took shelter in First Lutheran Church in Lake City until about 1:30 p.m., when authorities announced that the leak had been contained.

U.S. Highway 61 was closed from Lake City south to Minnesota 42 at Kellogg around 7 a.m. and didn't reopen until after 2 p.m. Not long after the highway reopened, authorities closed it again, this time for a vehicle accident.

The leaking rail car was discovered in Lake City and moved three miles south into an unpopulated area, authorities said, but the fumes kept building.

There were no immediate reports of injuries, a dispatcher with the Wabasha County sheriff's office said. The Lake City fire department and a hazardous materials team from Rochester responded to the scene.

The leaking car was part of a 32-car Iowa, Chicago & Eastern Railroad train operating on Canadian Pacific tracks, according to Jeff Johnson, a Canadian Pacific spokesman. Eleven of the cars in the train were carrying hazardous materials, but only the one tanker was leaking.

Officials told reporters a cap on the tanker car apparently failed.

State, city and railroad officials said the 28,000-gallon tanker is an older model. The ICE crew did not have a replacement cap on board and one wasn't readily available in the area, they said.

One resident told the Red Wing Republican Eagle newspaper 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 her pet back indoors 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.

Authorities recommended ''sheltering in place'' for residents who weren't evacuated, meaning people were advised to stay in their homes unless instructed otherwise.

Anhydrous ammonia can be extremely toxic and may be fatal if inhaled. The vapors are irritating and corrosive, according to the federal Emergency Response Guidebook. Symptoms of exposure include a harsh burning sensation in the nose, a bad taste or stinging in the mouth, as well as headaches, nausea and difficulty breathing. The effects of inhalation may be delayed.

Ammonia fumes were detected 15 miles to the north in Red Wing, which prompted police there to investigate if the rail car was leaking as it came through that city. But Police Chief Tim Sletten said officers checked the tracks and low-lying areas and found nothing dangerous of 8:30 a.m.

Traffic was halted on the Canadian Pacific line, and trains were stopped at Minneiska, Winona and the Twin Cities.

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