Louisiana Train Derailment and Acid SpillMay 19, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
A six-car train derailment that caused one of the cars to rupture and leak hydrochloric acid, resulted in the evacuation of thousands this weekend in Louisiana. The acid formed a yellowish pool on the ground and spread a large, toxic cloud over Lafayette, a southern Louisiana city about 125 miles west of New Orleans. A Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad Company train was responsible for the derailment and spill.
An evacuation order was enacted early on Saturday morning after an estimated 11,000 gallons of hydrochloric acid leaked from the ruptured rail car. Hydrochloric acid can cause respiratory problems and irritation to the skin and eyes. Cleanup crews used lime to neutralize the chemical, while contractors for the rail company excavated the acid for disposal. According to the state Department of Environmental Quality, the railroad company intends to dig out and dispose of the resultant material. According to state police, over half of the 11,000 gallons of acid has been removed so far.
The derailment and spill affected a large scope of Louisiana’s Lafayette Parish area and, following the derailment, approximately 3,000 residents and businesses in northwest Lafayette—all those within a one-mile perimeter of the derailment—were displaced. The train was headed to Lake Charles, near Texas and about 75 miles west of Lafayette. The derailment affected not only train workers and local residents, but also many area businesses, forcing such businesses to close down during and following the derailment and chemical spill. A portion of the area remains shut down and those operating within 1,000 feet of the derailment are still under evacuation orders. It is believed no residents are involved in the smaller perimeter area.
The derailment occurred at the Ambassador Caffery Parkway overpass, leading to a number of major road closures, including the Ambassador Caffery, Cameron, Bertrand, and Interstate 10. The Ambassador Caffery overpass remains closed at the railroad-crossing site. Because some of the rail cars may have hit the underside of the overpass, the state Department of Transportation and Development (DOTD) must clear its use and approve is reopening. Meanwhile, the DOTD cannot work in the area until the entire chemical cleanup is completed and the final 1,000-yard safety zone has been dissolved. That portion of the work is expected to take a couple of more days.
The widespread chemical release emitted hazardous and harmful chemicals and toxins, which can cause both medical problems and property damage. Five people, including two railroad workers, were sent to a hospital and treated after complaining of skin and eye irritation, state police said. Also, a nursing home was forced to evacuate its 161 residents with 35 residents taken to local hospitals because their frail and weakened conditions did not enable their movement to other facilities.
A variety of families stayed at the Red Cross shelter established at the Carencro High School. This shelter was dismantled by 9:00 PM on Saturday when other accommodations were arranged by the rail company for the displaced at area hotels.
Also, an Amtrak Sunset Limited heading from Los Angeles was detoured and arrived about one and a-half hours late in New Orleans. A number of passengers bound for Lafayette and other Louisiana stops were bused out of Houston.