Train derailment causes leak, prompts evacuations

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Crews continued efforts Thursday to neutralize hydrochloric acid that spilled during a train derailment in southern Louisiana, prompting evacuations and road closures, officials said.

Officials in Paulina in St. James Parish, about 50 miles west of New Orleans, said about 200 homes in a quarter-mile area were evacuated after the leak Wednesday as law enforcement and emergency officials went door-to-door alerting residents. The leak was caused by the derailment of six train cars, they said.

Residents were put up in hotels or offered shelter at a senior center, according to the St. James Parish Sheriff’s Office. Those hotel stays were extended Thursday for another night as authorities tested air quality and ground contamination at individual residences near the site, St. James Sheriff Willy J. Martin Jr. said at a Thursday afternoon news conference.

“Every single residence is going to be tested,” he said.

It is unclear when residents will be able to return to their homes,  Martin said Thursday morning. He said authorities see no need to expand the evacuation zone as crews neutralize ground contamination.

“As soon as it’s safe, we’re going to try to get people back to their houses,” Martin said.

Martin said Highway 44 was expected to open Thursday – it remained closed as of Thursday afternoon – but could not give a timeline on when Highway 642 would open.

Crews have so far removed three of the six train cars from the rail system, Martin said early Thursday, adding the acid “has basically drained itself out,” though some of it remains in the train car.

Martin said officials were concerned that if they pull the train car upright, the remaining acid will spill out. They are trying to avoid additional spillage and to neutralize the acid that remains in the car.

No injuries were immediately reported in the train derailment or subsequent acid leak, St. James Parish President Pete Dufresne said Wednesday.

It was not immediately clear what caused the derailment, Martin said.

The acid needs to be neutralized and removed before residents can return home, said Eric Deroche, St. James’ homeland security director.

Inhaling the corrosive chemical can irritate the lungs, causing cough and shortness of breath, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Breathing high levels of the gas can also lead to a build-up of fluid in the lungs, which can cause death.

The damaged rail car was carrying 20,000 gallons of hydrochloric acid, Louisiana State Police spokesman Christian Reed said.

“It’s not like it’s a small puncture,” Martin said. “It’s more like a rip underneath the belly of the car.”

Contributing: The Associated Press; The Donaldsonville Chief

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