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Mecca, California Train Derailment Releases Toxic Plume, Forces Evacuations

Mar 4, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP A train derailment in Mecca, California last night resulted in the evacuation  of 60 people living near the accident, and ignited fears of a toxic chemical spill.  No injuries were reported as a result of the Mecca, California train derailment, but it is still not known when evacuees will be allowed to return home.  

The Mecca, California train derailment occurred shortly before 9:00 p.m. yesterday just outside of the southern California desert town, located about 140 miles southeast of Los Angeles.  The Union Pacific freight train was traveling from Colton to El Centro, California when 29 cars went off the track.  Fifty-three of the Union Pacific train's cars were full, and some were carrying hazardous chemicals.  Investigators from the fire department, Riverside County Hazardous Materials Team, county environmental health officials and Union Pacific were all called to the scene.  The derailment damaged about 2,000 feet of track, and a stretch of Highway 11 had to be closed.

About 60 Mecca residents living within one mile of the Union Pacific train derailment have yet to be allowed back in their homes.  People were being kept out of the area around the Mecca, California train derailment site until acid leaks were stopped and cleanup crews could begin their work.

Several cars from the Union Pacific train were leaking hydrochloric and phosphoric acid.  Phosphoric acid is used for rust removal and to prepare steel surfaces for painting. Inhalation of  phosphoric acid can cause irritation to the nose, throat, and upper respiratory tract. Severe exposures can lead to a chemical pneumonitis. Skin contact with phosphoric acid can cause redness, pain, and severe skin burns, while contact to the eyes can cause redness, pain, blurred vision, eye burns, and permanent eye damage.  Exposure to phosphoric acid can aggravate pre-existing skin, eye and respiratory problems.

Hydrochloric acid is a highly corrosive and toxic liquid that can become a mist if it comes in contact with water.  Inhaling hydrochloric acid vapors can cause coughing, choking, inflammation of the nose, throat, and upper respiratory tract, and in severe cases, pulmonary edema, circulatory failure, and death.  The vapors from hydrochloric acid can irritate and damage the eyes, and direct contact with the toxin can cause redness, pain, and severe skin burns.  Hydrochloric acid is used in leather processing,  the production of PVC and plastics, and it has many other industrial applications.

The acid sent up a 25-foot plume Monday night, Riverside County fire Capt. Julie Hutchinson told the Associated Press. A smaller cloud, caused by acid reacting with organic material at the scene, still hovered Tuesday morning although it did not represent an immediate public health threat, Hutchinson said.

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