The Union Pacific line that runs through Eastern Washington has been shut down since Friday by a 23-car derailment near Ritzville, Adams County, that included a hazardous cargo spill of sodium chlorate and subsequent fire that flared over the weekend.
No one was injured in the incident that Union Pacific reports was triggered by a rock slide and left 11 of the 23 cars derailed inside a tunnel.
Union Pacific still has no estimated time for reopening the railroad line, which runs from the Canadian border south to the Columbia River Gorge, and trains have been routed along a line operated by the BNSF Railway.
The spill of sodium chlorate, a crystalline chemical used in bleaching paper pulp, occurred in one train car that derailed outside the tunnel. The state Department of Ecology reports the spill and subsequent ignition of the chemical occurred in a remote area — distant from water sources as well as residences.
But several miles away, in the small hamlet of Hooper, the smoke plume resulted in an “acrid smell” in the air Saturday that got worse during the evening, according to Mary Sherman McGregor, a former resident who spent the night in that community and then left Sunday for Idaho.
“At no time were we told what had happened,” McGregor said Wednesday. “I was really quite annoyed. People deserve to know what was going on. There is a sense that nobody lives out here and this is not really true.”
The train carried more than 100 freight cars, some with hazardous cargo that — in addition to the sodium chlorate — included liquefied petroleum gases, anhydrous ammonia and sodium chlorate, according to a train list obtained by The Seattle Times.
Tim McMahan, Union Pacific spokesman, said the derailment occurred at 12:40 a.m. Friday.
Union Pacific did not at first realize the sodium chlorate had spilled, and in an initial report said no hazardous cargo had been released, according to McMahan.
Later, the spill was detected, and the chemical Saturday sparked a small fire of railroad ties on the track that was put out. On Sunday, crews conducted what McMahan called a “successful controlled burn” of the remaining sodium chlorate.
Sandy Howard, a state Ecology Department spokeswoman, said the chemical was catching fire whenever Union Pacific tried to remove cars from the track. The product manufacturer suggested burning the chemical to control the fire and keep it from spreading.
“Our spills responder approved the assisted burn as an emergency measure … to improve the safety of the response, and to allow them to clear the tracks and tunnel,” Howard said. “We felt the benefits outweighed the risks.”