A Union Pacific rail line in Eastern Washington has reopened after a 23-car derailment and a subsequent chemical spill and fire that left union officials raising questions about the response.
The accident was caused by a March 14 rock slide near the small Adams County community of Hooper. Thirteen of the cars derailed within a tunnel.
The fire flared two days later, March 16, followed by a controlled burn the next day of the remainder of the chemical spill. The line reopened March 21, according to Tim McMahan, a spokesman for Union Pacific.
State Department of Ecology and Adams County Emergency Management officials were not informed by Union Pacific of the sodium chlorate spill until March 16 — two days after the derailment. Still, they gave the railroad generally high marks for the cleanup.
“They responded pretty well, and did everything they needed to do,” said Jay Weise, director of Adams County Emergency Management.
But Union Pacific has come under criticism from a railroad union — the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen — whose members expressed concern about the potential for a bigger conflagration. They faulted the railroad company for not reporting the spill sooner and failing to inform the locomotive crew about the decision to conduct the controlled burn.
Sodium chlorate is often used to bleach paper pulp. When the chemical burns, it releases oxygen but also can generate lesser amounts of poisonous gases, which include chlorides and sodium oxides.
Shahraim Allen, the union’s Washington state Legislative Board chairman, said the locomotive crew was more than a half-mile from the burn site, but they could have been exposed to the smoke plume if the wind shifted.
“We had concerns conveyed from crew,” Allen said. “They should have been notified before this happened,”
The derailment occurred on the evening of March 14 on a Union Pacific line that runs from Canada south to the Columbia River Gorge, where cargo then can travel to the west side of the Cascades.
The freight train had more than 100 cars, 60 with hazardous cargo that included liquefied petroleum gases, anhydrous ammonia and methanol, according to a freight list obtained by The Seattle Times.
State Ecology Department staff arrived at the site of derailment in the pre-dawn hours of March 15. During that visit, which ended before daylight, the state responders were not told of any chemical spill — only a release of hempseed oil, according to a timeline of events developed by Ecology Department staff.
“We feel like we properly responded to the spill but plan to do a follow-up to see if there could have been improvement,” said Sandy Howard, a state Department of Ecology spokeswoman.
A spill was visible in a drone video taken March 15 by a local rancher and aired on Spokane television news. White material could be seen beside a derailed rail car.
But McMahan, the Union Pacific spokesman, said the sodium chlorate spill was not detected until March 16. That’s the day the chemical caught fire as it mixed with spilled hempseed oil while the cleanup was underway, according to the Ecology Department timeline of events.
Union Pacific contacted Adams County Fire District #7, about the fire at 7:12 p.m. March 16, and the district made a water truck available for roughly the next 24 hours, according to Fire Chief Dave Miller.
“We weren’t actually at the fire. We were about six miles away, on standby in case we were needed,” Miller said.
The initial blaze produced a billowing smoke cloud that on the evening of March 16 could be seen several miles away in Hooper, where an acrid smell hung in the air, according to Mary Sherman McGregor, a former resident who had returned that weekend for a visit.
Crews extinguished the flames March 16, but the material was still smoldering, according to the state Ecology Department.
Union Pacific, after consulting about the sodium chlorate, then decided to conduct the controlled burn, mixing the chemical with wood to intensify the fire and reduce the threat of reignition, according to the Ecology Department.
The controlled burn took place March 17 and was completed by that evening, according to the Ecology Department.