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UP train derails in Mecca, Calif.

(The following story by Steve Fetbrandt, Steve Moore, Chris Richards John Asbury appeared on The Press-Enterprise website on March 4. Tim Smith is Chairman of the BLET’s California State Legislative Board.)

MECCA, Calif. — Crews reported significant progress Tuesday in cleaning up a chemical spill after a train derailment Monday night near this farm worker community that triggered a precautionary evacuation of a nine-square-mile rural area.

Authorities ordered the evacuation of about 65 homes, but residents may be able to return home today if the overnight cleanup continues to go well, said Riverside County Fire Department Capt. Fernando Herrera.

About 60 people were housed at an evacuation center late Tuesday at Coachella Valley High School.

Residents near the crash site were rousted by emergency workers in the middle of the night and given minutes to flee.

Ernest Lo said he was awakened shortly after midnight by firefighters who pulled up to the gate of his Kimco Fish Farm on 69th Avenue.

"They were shouting, 'Leave here right away! There's poison in the air!" Lo said. "We grabbed our wallets and left."

Herrera said that major streets in the area and possibly Highway 111, seven miles of which were closed Tuesday, could reopen today.

The 8:45 p.m. wreck left two tanker cars leaking and sent 29 cars off the tracks.

The eastbound 65-car train was traveling from Colton toward El Centro. After the derailment, train traffic was rerouted to Salt Lake City, authorities said.

No injuries reported from either the train accident or the chemical spill, which involved hydrochloric acid and phosphoric acid, officials said. The two spills were within about 100 to 200 yards of each other.

Vapors were confined to the immediate area of the spill, fire officials said.

On the north side of the tracks, workers covered a spill of hydrochloric acid with dirt, Herrera said. Tanker trucks were heading to the site to pump out rail cars that contained more of that chemical, he said.

On the south side, crews were working on covering up a phosphoric acid spills to keep the vapors down, officials said.

Contaminated soil at the spill sites will have to be removed, Herrera said.

The Environmental Protection Agency was monitoring air quality.

"If everything remains the same, we'll be relatively safe," Herrera said.

At a meeting with evacuees Tuesday evening at Coachella Valley High School, John Kind of the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health in North Little Rock, Ark., said the only elevated concentration of hydrogen chloride gas his technicians found was in a 300- to 400-yard circle immediately around the crash site.

Sampling started about 5:30 a.m. and continued throughout the day, Kind said. He said technicians will respond if residents request testing at their homes.

Pipeline Shut Down

The mishap forced Kinder Morgan Energy partners to shut down a 20-inch pipeline that moves gasoline, diesel and jet fuel from Colton to Phoenix. The line will remain closed until the company assesses whether it was damaged, a spokeswoman said in an email.

No fuel shortages were expected as a result.

Several overturned rail cars away from the spill area were uprighted Tuesday and moved to the Indio area.

The train also had 53 cars loaded with corn, wheat and molasses. A dozen were empty, authorities said.

Union Pacific crews removed slightly more than half of the train that had remained on the track. High-pitched grinding could be heard during the day as workers attacked the wrecked mass of twisted steel that remained.

As the cars are pried apart, officials will have a better idea about any additional leaks, Herrera said.

By the end of Tuesday, workers already had repaired 1,500 feet of the 2,000 foot break in the track, railroad officials said.

The derailment was the fourth Union Pacific train wreck in the Salton Sea area within the last year, according to records from the Federal Railroad Administration.

On April 3, 2007, blue-cheese salad dressing and a concrete sealant spilled when 19 cars derailed at Highway 111. On Sept. 16, one person was injured when a train struck a tractor-trailer truck.

Nov. 10, an engineer and a conductor were killed in Imperial County when two trains collided.

Tim Smith, state legislative board chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen in California, said a thorough investigation is needed to look for common threads.

"They need to get at the root causes," White said.

James Barnes, a spokesman for Union Pacific Railroad, said the railroad's "first and foremost concern is safety."

"Unfortunately, derailments occur," he said. "The railroad is a safe way to transport large, bulky commodities."

Worried About Home

Gilberto Juarez, who lives near the derailment site, worried about whether toxic fumes might harm the pets and livestock he had left behind.

"I left behind my dogs, chickens and pigs. I don't know what happened to them," he said.

He later learned they were fine.

Doug Iten, of the Headstart Nursery in Mecca, wanted to check on his greenhouses inside the quarantined area. Iten said he was more worried about the plants than the fumes.

"We're trying to get access so our vegetables don't die," he said.

The unincorporated community of Mecca has about 2,000 residents, but as many as 8,000 migrant farm workers may live there during harvest seasons. Grape picking has just begun and will continue through July.

The heart of Mecca's agricultural industry lies about two miles from the derailment site. Herrera said agricultural officials will check crops on the south side of the spill today. Crops on the north side are fine, he said.

At the Plaza Garibaldi Mexican Restaurant downtown, Manager Tony Gutierrez said he learned of the derailment at lunchtime.

"Of course I'm worried," he said. "It's not only dangerous to me, but to the whole community. If there are trains carrying chemicals, they need to do something about it."

Lo said he spent much of Tuesday worrying about his fish farm, where he had left a pump running. He feared the pump would flood his reservoir, breaking down its earthen banks and wiping out 2 million koi and goldfish, along with his life's savings.

Shortly before 3 p.m. Tuesday, Lo found a way around roadblocks and returned home long enough to shut off the pump.

Mario Solorio, Union Pacific Railroad's claims director, said the railroad will compensate evacuees for any reasonable expenses they incur as a result of the crash.

Solorio said he will be at the high school today to answer questions and help anyone needing to enter the quarantined area before the evacuation is lifted.

Julie Pardini, response director for the American Red Cross, Riverside County Chapter, said the organization has reserved enough hotel rooms to accommodate all 60 people at the shelter if the evacuation is extended.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

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