Twice in One Week: Chemical Leaks from Rail Cars

The chemical Acrylamide leaked from rail cars in Lock Haven on two separate incidents recently.

By LaKeshia Knarr

LOCK HAVEN – City residents waking up in the early hours of this Wednesday morning near South Hanna Street may have felt like they were having déjà vu, as responders dealt with a situation on the railroad tracks for the second time in one week.

Just last Wednesday, June 21, at 5:52 a.m., emergency responders were dispatched to 2 S. Hanna St., the Norfolk Southern Rail Yard, for a chemical leak from one of the rail cars. They were on the scene until 9:47 a.m. that morning.

Then, again this Wednesday, June 28, the incident repeated itself with a different train car. Dispatched at 3:17 a.m., the crews were on scene until 6:57 a.m.

According to Chief Bob Neff of the Lock Haven Fire Department, the chemical that leaked during both incidents was acrylamide, a white and odorless crystalline compound derived from acrylic acid that easily forms polymers. Polyacrylamide is used for chemical-enhanced oil extraction, as well as wastewater treatment, gel electrophoresis, papermaking, ore processing, and the manufacture of permanent press fabrics.

The chemical was being stored in cars owned or leased by the chemical manufacturer, SNF Holding Company, and was being transported to WSP Chemical in Castanea Township, Neff said.

The compound began to react inside the cars in both incidents, building heat, the chief explained. The car’s pressure relief valve releases heat, and in these cases also released “a plume of mostly steam and water vapor.”

Due to lack of experience with this chemical, responders took precautions.

“We had no idea what it was, how to handle it or what it was going to do,” Neff said.

For that reason, emergency personnel didn’t allow employees from companies working out of the old Piper plant to go on site in the early morning hours on June 21. Later in the day, Neff said, responders noticed trace amounts of ammonia, a release product from the chemical reaction, near the Piper facility, so those companies’ workers were asked to leave the premises and not return for a second shift that day.

The responders also shut down the main Norfolk Southern rail line that runs across the city and asked organizers of the Sentimental Journey Fly In to not allow planes in the sky for a temporary period.

“There were no explosions. There was no damage to cars other than the two directly involved,” Neff said. “Nothing catastrophic happened at either incident. The only problem is when the chemical is going through the reaction phase. The residue that is left over is not a hazard… There was no contamination to any waterways or anything like that.”

Northridge Group Inc., a HAZMAT organization based out of Winfield, was on site for both incidents and helped remediate the area directly surrounding the affected train cars, Neff said.

Also responding to the scene June 21 were LHFD, Lock Haven Emergency Medical Services, Clinton County HAZMAT, Clinton County Emergency Management Agency, Dunnstown Fire Company, and representatives from the Department of Environmental Protection, Norfolk Southern and North Shore Railroad.

On June 28, responders included LHFD, LH EMS, County EMA, Norfolk Southern and North Shore.

“There are still cars there with this material in it,” Neff said, indicating plans are being made to relocate the remaining cars.

Prior to the June 21 incident, he said, there were 15 rail cars containing acrylamide. After the June 28 incident, 13 remained. WSP Chemical has agreed to take two to its site in Castanea Township. Logistics are being worked out for how to transport the remaining 11 cars to a NSF Holding Company facility in Georgia, where they will likely test, use and dispose of the chemical.

“It’s pretty much a rare occurrence,” Neff said. “They have only had one such incident in the last 10 years and we had two in the last week. We were just the lucky recipients.”

As for what is causing the reactions, that remains to be seen and may never be determined.

Neff said there is speculation as to what caused the recent incidents; however, NSF never figured out what caused the incident that occurred 10 years ago.