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Chemical leak spurs evacuation in Lake City

Mar 18, 2007 | AP More than 100 people were evacuated from their homes in Lake City on Saturday after anhydrous ammonia leaked from a rail car, blanketing part of town with noxious fumes.

U.S. 61 was closed from Lake City south to Wabasha about 7 a.m., and traffic was rerouted for several hours.

The leaking car was moved three miles south into an unpopulated area, authorities said, but the fumes kept building. The evacuation on the south end of the town on Lake Pepin began about 7:45 a.m., and the fire department and a hazardous-materials team were sent to stop the leak.

Mayor Katie Himanga said nobody was injured or hospitalized.

Most evacuees went to stay with relatives or friends or at an emergency shelter at a local church, though some disabled people were evacuated by ambulance. The evacuation was called off early Saturday afternoon.

Jafar Karim, a spokesman for the Iowa, Chicago & Eastern Railroad in Sioux Falls, S.D., said the problem was with a valve on the affected car. He said he did not know the nature of the problem with the valve.

"The actual cause is not yet determined, but we'll be working with others to determine that cause in the coming days," Karim said.

The leaking car was part of an IC&E train operating on Canadian Pacific track. Karim said the car belonged to a customer and IC&E had picked it up Saturday morning from the Canadian Pacific yard in St. Paul.

Eleven of the 37 cars were carrying hazardous materials, such as anhydrous ammonia, Canadian Pacific spokesman Jeff Johnson said. Eighteen cars were loaded; 19 were empty.

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 to breathe.

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

Anhydrous ammonia, which is commonly used as fertilizer, 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 and a bad taste or stinging in the mouth, as well as headaches, nausea and difficulty breathing. The effects of inhalation may be delayed.

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

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