Railcar Not Designed to Carry Acid Mix

Railcar Not Designed to Carry Acid Mix

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SALT LAKE CITY (KSL/AP) -- A railcar that leaked hazardous chemicals and temporarily forced thousands of people from their homes was hauling a dangerous cocktail of corrosive acids that it was not supposed to carry, authorities said Monday.

Sunday's spill caused a cloud of orange fumes above a several-block area of South Salt Lake, forced the evacuation of nearly 8,000 people and shut down several roads and highways in the area, including a stretch of Interstate 15. By mid-morning Monday, evacuees were allowed home and the roads were reopened.

"The railcars are used for the transportation of sulphuric acid. That's what they're designed for," said Louie Cononelos, a spokesman for Kennecott Utah Copper, a Magna-based company that leased the railcar to Phillips Services. "For whatever reason, they were shipping something that was not sulphuric acid."

Samples taken at the site by hazmat crews on Sunday showed the contents included acetic acid, hydrofluoric acid, phosphoric acid and sulphuric acid. The materials in the railcar were not contained and easily corroded the car's lining.

"That combination attacked the integrity of the railcar," Cononelos said.

Even though the company that filled the tanker said it was filled with ammonia, the tests didn't find any.

"We have an environmental contractor who'll be testing the contents of the car," said Union Pacific spokesman John Bromley. "After that, it's likely the car will be scrapped. It's too badly damaged."

Railcar Not Designed to Carry Acid Mix

Bromley wouldn't say whether the railroad would pursue legal action against Phillips Services, which leased the railcar owned by Kennecott Utah Copper.

"I don't know. I couldn't comment on that," Bromley said.

"Our shippers always work with us to make sure we have accurate product labeling."

South Salt Lake Fire Chief Steve Foote on Monday discussed the possibility of a criminal investigation into what was potentially an environmental crime.

"Why didn't they give us the full information?" Foote asked Sunday night, while speculating on the possibility of negligence in the process of loading the container.

Railcar Not Designed to Carry Acid Mix

"We talked with the very person who loaded it," Foote said. "They're not being straight with us."

Philip Services officials said Monday their shipment was in compliance with the federal Department of Transportation's guidelines.

Spokesman Paul Schultz says he has not seen a copy of the contract between his company and Kennecott. He said they deal with these things through a transportation broker, but would not name the broker.

Schultz said the container had been filled with the mix of acids close to three weeks prior to the leak.

Crews have finished pumping the chemicals out and they know what to do with the thousands of gallons of acid that already had spilled.

By early today, the residents were back in their home, the cleanup was under way and most of the closed highways were reopened.

The area downwind of the leak was evacuated Sunday because of fumes from the spill, Fire Chief Steve Foote said. Evacuation centers were set up at church meeting houses, but most of those evacuated were staying with friends or relatives.

Officials were angered that they could not pin down what was in the tank and the information they were given conflicted with their own observations.

The manifest said it was sulfuric and hydrofluoric acids; the company told them it was hydrochloric, hydrofluoric, nitric and sulfuric acids. Late Sunday, the company corrected itself, saying the contents were phosphoric, acetic, sulfuric and hydrofluoric acids, and ammonia -- all at a concentration of only 10 per cent.

Railcar Not Designed to Carry Acid Mix

"What's concerning to us is the concentration level," Foote said, saying the waste appeared to be of a much higher concentration.

The tanker car originally carried 13,000 gallons of nitric acid at 94 percent concentration from Kennecott Utah Copper -- a mining, smelting, and refining company -- to Darwin, Nev., Foote said. He said the tanker car, sublet to another company, was then loaded with the industrial waste -- whatever it was -- and the train arrived at the Roper Rail Yard in South Salt Lake shortly after 6 a.m.

It was supposed to be taken to Ohio, where the waste was to be solidified and buried, but the tanker was found to be leaking.

Officials spent all day trying to find out from a company they first identified as Phillips Environmental but later called Philip Services, what the tanker contained.

"The rules are absolutely specific," about detailing contents being shipped, Foote said. "Somebody dropped the ball here."

Railcar Not Designed to Carry Acid Mix

Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who visited the media center set up within viewing distance of the spill, expressed frustration over the lack of clarity about the railcar's contents.

"It's tough to know how to respond if you don't know the contents of the bulk container," Huntsman said. "We're talking about people's lives here."

"We will have a lot of questions for this company," Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis, of Omaha, said late Sunday. "It's very important that we get the correct commodity. That is one thing our shippers are very active with."

The leak got worse and the tanker wall began to soften, prompting the evacuation. Officials formed and changed plans as the condition of the tanker car changed.

Finally, specialized equipment arrived from Las Vegas that enabled crews to remotely pierce the tanker's side and begin pumping the waste into portable tanks.

Railcar Not Designed to Carry Acid Mix

The evacuation order was lifted at 10 p.m., and the main Interstate 15 freeway and most other closed highways reopened Monday.

The pumping was completed at 3:50 a.m., Davis said. Six thousand gallons was pumped out, and it was believed about 6,500 gallons had leaked and soaked into the ground.

The contaminated soil also will be neutralized with lime and then will be dug up and taken away, he said. The affected area is about 20 yards by 100 yards.

"The chemical's been neutralized, there will be no off-gasing, no plumes to worry about, nothing like that so everyone should feel safe and secure that this issue has come to a good resolution," said Chief Foote. "No one was injured yesterday and that's pretty amazing when we had 120 people here yesterday."

Chief Foote says the spill may end up costing more than 100-thousand dollars.

Foote says fire departments will work with Union Pacific to figure out who will pay the bill.

Around 150 firefighters responded to a call of yellow smoke coming from a railcar just before six o'clock Sunday morning.

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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