Train wreck creating haz-mat danger that's 'as bad as it gets'

A train fire that was supposed to last a couple of hours burned for a second day Thursday, keeping residents who evacuated in southern Jefferson County from returning to their homes.
A train fire that was supposed to last a couple of hours burned for a second day Thursday, keeping residents who evacuated in southern Jefferson County from returning to their homes. AP

LOUISVILLE — The blaze that authorities initially said would end in a couple of hours instead spewed flames and smoke from a derailed tanker car for a second day Thursday with no end in sight, as crews scrambled to prevent it from igniting railcars loaded with toxic chemicals nearby.

Hundreds of people have had to evacuate, including the entire town of West Point and some people from nearby Louisville. The burning butadiene, a chemical commonly found in rubber used to make tires, can damage the central nervous system and reproductive system. Workers were hosing down other railcars nearby filled with another corrosive chemical, hydrogen fluoride, which can cause severe respiratory damage.

All the water used to keep those cars cool, however, raised fears that the water could become contaminated and wash into the confluence of the Salt and Ohio rivers. The Environmental Protection Agency was monitoring water quality and quickly erecting a dam to keep out contaminated water.

"This is as bad as it gets as far as a haz-mat incident, if it were to be released," said Art Smith, an emergency coordinator with the EPA.

Three workers were hospitalized after the blaze ignited Wednesday, one of whom remained in critical condition. Another worker, a contracted consultant, was released on Thursday, Paducah & Louisville Railway officials said. They had been using a cutting torch to separate two cars at the site of Monday's derailment, after being told by air quality monitors that the air was clear and the torch safe to use, said Gerald Gupton with the Paducah & Louisville Railway.

Two of the burned men work for R. J. Corman Railroad Group, a Nicholasville-based company, said Noel Rush, the company's vice president of finance and administration. They worked for the St. Louis Derailment Division, he said.

Asked if the workers who supplied the misleading air measurements were responsible for the fire, Gupton replied, "Absolutely not. It was an accident."

When further pressed about who was responsible, he said, "I'm not prepared to answer that right now. The investigation is being conducted."

On Thursday, workers were siphoning styrene — another toxic chemical used in rubber — from one stricken railcar. Otherwise, the main concern and biggest threat of danger was the cars filled with hydrogen fluoride that were within about 10 feet of the burning car. Gupton said those cars would be carefully moved so that the chemical can be removed.

Officials had expected the fire to burn itself out within a couple of hours, but it is now unclear exactly how long it would burn.

"We can't get up and look in the hole and take any measurements with the conditions as they are," Gupton said.

That left residents like 30-year-old April Graham and her three children — ages 14, 11 and 7 — to sleep on cots at an elementary school-turned-shelter after a hasty evacuation they thought would be brief. The family ate ham sandwiches for dinner; her youngest son played basketball and ran the hallways with other children to pass the time.

"We just want to go home," she said when asked how the family was holding up. "Depressed, don't know what's going to happen."

The train derailed on a line that runs between Paducah in Western Kentucky and Louisville, which is home to rubber manufacturers and other chemical plants, most of them concentrated in the Rubbertown neighborhood.

The Paducah & Louisville Railway train derailed Monday morning near Dixie Highway, a main corridor between Louisville and Fort Knox. Nine of the 13 derailed cars were carrying hazardous chemicals. The train was traveling from the company's headquarters in Paducah to its Louisville switching facility, said spokeswoman Bonnie Hackbarth. She said she did not know whether Louisville was the final destination for the chemical cars.

Records provided by the company show it reported a total of 13 derailments to the Federal Railroad Administration since 2008. No injuries, casualties or evacuations were reported, the chart showed.

CSX listed Paducah and Louisville Railroad as one of its 51 majority-owned subsidiaries included in its annual report to the Surface Transportation Board, an arm of the Department of Transportation that regulates railroad rates, services and transactions.