UPDATE – Lawtell Louisiana Train Derailment

20130305_172018By Andy Zellinger, Research Analyst

Two weeks have passed since a train derailed near Lawtell, Louisiana. This is an update to an August 8th blog post titled, Trend in Transportation Accidents – Train Derailment in St. Landry Parish. To summarize the details from my last blog, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal had declared a state of emergency on August 5th around the site of a derailed train that leaked chemicals in St. Landry Parish.  There were 27 rail cars that derailed, and several that leaked their entire contents. These cars leaked a total of approximately 43,000 gallons of lube oil, dodecanol (a detergent like alcohol used in cleaning mixtures), and sodium hydroxide (a toxic and caustic chemical also known as lye).

One of the key points to my last submission was the contradiction between the Governor’s assessment that there were no offsite impacts from the derailment, but at the same time initial reports documented environmental and health impacts throughout the community. The first report submitted by the responsible party, Union Pacific, to the Coast Guard’s National Response Center indicated there was a man hospitalized with burning eyes, and an August 5th report by dailyworld.com provided evidence that many other residents were negatively affected as well. A second NRC report describes an unknown amount of chemicals were discovered leaking into nearby water ways including Bayou Mallet. The last post left off with Parish officials and residents sharing their concerns over both the immediate, and potentially still unfolding impacts from the derailment.

Two weeks after the accident; dailyworld.com reported Lawtell residents still have concerns over how the evacuation and cleanup process were executed. On Thursday, August 8th, approximately 160 people were given the opportunity to voice their concerns regarding air quality, drinking water contamination, and evacuation zones. In a town hall-style meeting officials from local and state agencies, including St. Landry Parish water district board, and a chief engineer with the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals assured residents they were doing everything they could to expedite the process. Several residents say “they live within a mile of the site of the crash and were not included in the mandatory evacuation” (they were then told it was actually a half mile in each direction from the accident only a mile in diameter).

LDEQ Miller lawtell derailmentPhoto credit: dailyworld.com

Residents voiced their concerns over contaminated water getting into their drinking wells, and irrigation canals that flood their fields where they farm crawfish and rice paddies. According to an August 14th article by dailyworld.com, there were approximately 43,000 gallons of spilled chemicals (dodecanol, sodium hydroxide, and lube oil). Jake Causey, Chief Engineer with Louisiana DHH, assured residents their drinking water was safe for human consumption after he tested two wells that both reach 600 feet below the surface, and are protected by a 100-foot layer of clay. Although these tests alleviate concerns over contaminated drinking water, there were still reports of oily sheen and soapy films in the drainage canals leading to Bayou Mallet. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality has been tasked with testing the environmental impact from the spill. According to an article by KATC, LDEQ officials have not confirmed whether or not the residue came from the chemicals that spilled during last week’s train derailment, which can be frustrating for residents such as Allen Guillory. “They’re not telling us what the chemicals are. You know this could be something that’s harmful for me, maybe my neighbors, their kids, and my thing is you know, we need to know what we’re dealing with so we know how to deal with it,” Lawtell resident Allen Guillory said.

At the town hall meeting, residents were also told a chemical odor in the air did not necessarily mean there were particulates and preliminary air quality tests did not indicate a threat. Individual home air quality tests were done before returning residents are allowed into their homes. Since the investigation remains open by LDEQ there is no public to access this air monitoring data at this time. Louisiana Bucket Brigade has been unable to access the LDEQ air monitoring results, but there have been residents reporting to our iWitness Pollution Map. In this August 15th report a Lawtell resident asks “should we take any precautions on this?” in reference to their family showing negative health effects from potential chemical exposure with symptoms of diarrhea, vomiting, and sore muscles.

St. Landry Parish residents are frustrated with the inconsistent and sometimes contradictory information they have been receiving following the train derailment in Lawtell. It is easy to sympathize with the reasons why they are concerned about their health, and the safety of farms and waterways including Bayou Mallet. Unfortunately, there is not much use in complaining to the Louisiana State Police, LDEQ, DHH, or other state agencies about how they worked to help the community. According to the St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz, “don’t be critical of how we tried to help you”

The rail line was inspected hours before the accident; the root cause of the derailment remains under investigation at this time. 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 Pollution Map by calling or texting 504-272-7645. You can sign up for alerts for when reports are submitted near your location.

This entry was posted in Community Events, Oil spills, Public Health. Bookmark the permalink.

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