Another petrochemical transportation emergency in Southern Louisiana occurred in the form of 27 rail cars derailing this past Sunday, August 4th around 3:30 PM. The most recent event continuing a trend of chemical transportation disaster occurred in the rural St. Landry Parish town of Lawtell, Louisiana. According to the news reports by The Advocate, crews began replacing about 1,800 feet of track on Monday around the site of a derailed Union Pacific train that leaked a corrosive chemical and forced the evacuation of about 100 south Louisiana homes.
Union Pacific spokeswoman Raquel Espinoza stated the cause of the accident is under investigation. “That section of track had just been inspected about three hours before the accident,” she said. “There’s no timeline on when the area will be completely clear. We’re just taking it one step at a time so we can clear the scene in the safest manner possible.” Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal declared a state of emergency Monday. In the Associated Press report, Raquel Espinoza said one railcar leaked sodium hydroxide, which can cause injuries or even death if it’s inhaled or touches the skin. Another spilled lube oil and a third leaked dodecanol. Espinoza said the leaks were plugged about 1 a.m. Monday. The spilled lube oil is basically as much of an environmental contaminant as crude oil (lube oils are usually 75-85 percent base stock i.e. crude oil). On the other hand, the dodecanol that has contaminated nearby drainage canals may be less harmful than other chemicals, because it is basically a detergent, but it still needs to be removed using wet vacuums.
Tuesday’s coverage of this situation from The Advocate indicates that the Vinyl Chloride has been safely removed; now that the other leaking tanks have emptied their contents, the response crews will be able to start returning some of the 250 evacuees to their homes. The latest update from KATC reports as of Wednesday morning about half of the evacuees have been able to return to their homes; the other half are residents who live closer to the derailment site are still under evacuation order. The 1800 feet of damaged track has been repaired, but there are still environmental concerns at this time. This video from KATC discusses current environmental concerns even though the explosion hazards have been removed there is some water contamination in a nearby drainage canal. A Union Pacific HAZMAT official has admitted the contamination is from dodecanol that leaked from one of the train cars. While testing continues at the canal at the intersection of School and Summer roads in Lawtell, local officials including Mr. Allen Guillory raise concern for the drinking water supply. He and officials at the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality are concerned how those chemicals may affect the health of the children as well as the entire Lawtell community.
State officials including Governor Bobby Jindal continue to claim there is “no offsite impact” from the train accident. Lt. Doug Cain, a spokesman for Louisiana State Police, said the state Department of Environmental Quality has been monitoring the air but there’s no “indication of any offsite impacts.” The Coast Guard’s National Response Center received the official notification report which clearly documented the immediate offsite impact from this accident – a man was hospitalized due to burning eyes from chemical exposure. The state of Louisiana’s officials’ statements clearly ignores the official NRC documentation of impact that preceded their investigation. Other community members reported similar health effects of a battery acid smell causing difficulty breathing, and the burning eyes sensation for which the other man was hospitalized. If you are ever experiencing negative health effects from chemical exposure please report your experience to our iWitness pollution map. Clearly we cannot depend on state officials to account for experiences of community members affected by these disasters.
This accident is just one of many in a recent trend of disasters. Other accidents prove how dangerous this industry is operating – earlier this summer in Louisiana a truck containing caustic Sodium Hydroxide (the same chemical that leaked in this derailment) flipped outside of Chalmette Refining, causing the Chalmette Ferry to close for several hours. Another accident occurred when a natural gas pipeline exploded in Washington parish – leveling a 300 foot radius around the blast. A worker was killed, and seven others were injured when a rupture occurred as nitrogen was being offloaded from a tank truck at CF industries in Donaldsonville, LA. Not only have Louisiana residents seen more than their share of recent chemical disasters due to transportation accidents, but this trend continues internationally as there been trains recently derailed in Quebec and Spain, as well as the disastrous pipeline leak in Mayflower, Arkansas. To summarize these issues into one common denominator, there are going to be chemicals disasters when these chemicals are not being transported in a safe manner. Clearly more oversight and caution should be taken when moving these substances via trucks, pipelines, and especially trains.
Union Pacific has set up a claims hotline number for those affected: 1-877-877-2567
You can also report how this disaster has affected you to our iWitness map by calling or texting 504-272-7645