Leak keeps evacuees from homes near derailed train

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

DU QUOIN, Ill. -- It might be days before everyone evacuated from the town of Tamaroa after Sunday's toxic train derailment can return, officials said Monday.

Work crews planned to begin removing a flammable chemical from the train wreckage late Monday to cut the risk of fire and clear the way for a few of the evacuees to return to their homes, said Mike Chamness, director of the Illinois Emergency Management Agency.

The process usually takes six to eight hours, he said.

After that, officials will decide whether to start letting some of the evacuees return to their homes.

"It's going to be sooner rather than later," but residents will not be allowed home before today at the earliest, Chamness said.

Between 800 and 1,000 people stayed in motels and a makeshift shelter in this Southern Illinois city after a Canadian National-Illinois Central freight train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed as it passed through Tamaroa Sunday morning.

Everyone within a three-mile radius of the site was evacuated, including the town of 800 as well as the sparsely populated farmland surrounding it.

No one was injured, Chamness said.

Tamaroa is about 20 miles south of Centralia and 74 miles northeast of Cape Girardeau.

It's not yet clear why the train jumped the tracks, said Peter Marshall, vice president of the gulf division of Canadian National.

Representatives from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived Monday to investigate the cause.

The 21-car train was carrying methanol, vinyl chloride, hydrochloric acid and formaldehyde, each either flammable or toxic if not handled correctly, Chamness said.

Most of the tanker cars stood perpendicular to the tracks Monday like a row of logs, some atop others.

The tracks run through what is now a patch of blackened grassland with houses about 30 feet away on either side. Officials said no structure on the ground was damaged in the derailment.

Crews focused their efforts Monday on one overturned car leaking highly flammable vinyl chloride, which posed a particular fire hazard, Chamness said.

Officials worry that sparks from bull dozers and other wrecking equipment in use at the site could ignite the methanol carried in some of the derailed tankers and in turn ignite the vinyl chloride, Chamness said.

"When you're dealing with these chemicals, you have to be very, very careful," said Marshall of Canadian National.

Crews were using bulldozers to put neutralizing lime on some hydrochloric acid that spilled in the derailment, Chamness said. That work sent a plume of white vapor into the sky and toward some houses nearby before dissipating.

Hydrochloric acid is not as flammable as vinyl chloride, so risk of a fire isn't as great, said Dennis McMurray, spokesman for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

Marshall said environmental tests done on the perimeter of the derailment site show it is clear of air pollution.

That piece of news was a comfort Monday to Regina Spurlock, as she watched her two young children pass the time playing games at the Du Quoin V.F.W. hall, a makeshift shelter. Spurlock is six months pregnant.

"I'm carrying this baby, so I want to know what's in the air" in Tamaroa, she said. "My main concern is my kids."

Also Monday, Chamness said state officials will ask Canadian National to repay the motel and food expenses of residents displaced by the derailment, as well as the costs of local, county and state agencies called in to clean up. For now, the American Red Cross is serving meals and attending to the evacuees' immediate needs.

Chamness said he recommended Gov. Rod Blagojevich not declare a state disaster area, since he expects Canadian National, rather than the government, to ultimately foot the bill.

Canadian National's Marshall said his company planned to pay the expenses of the displaced. It was not immediately clear whether that included the responding agencies.

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