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100,000 Gallons of Oil Spilled On Earth Day Train Derailment

April 23, 1990

CRAIGSVILLE, Pa. (AP) _ A train carrying a caustic chemical and crude oil derailed and exploded, spewing about 100,000 gallons of oil and releasing a chemical cloud that forced 200 people to evacuate.

Twenty-nine cars in a 97-car Buffalo & Pittsburgh Railroad freight train jumped the tracks in a steep ravine along Buffalo Creek late Sunday, John H. Bell, the railway’s vice president, said today.

At the fire’s peak, flames shooting several hundred feet high could be seen 30 miles away. At midmorning, the fire was still burning but was under control, authorities said.

Bell said only a small amount of the spilled oil leaked into Buffalo Creek, a tributary of the Allegheny River, and that it didn’t appear to be a threat to drinking water.

In addition to the oil, one tanker leaked sodium hydroxide that sent a chemical cloud drifting toward Worthington, causing 200 people to be moved from their homes overnight. All but 50 had returned by midmorning, said Worthington Fire Chief Don Grafton.

He said about 300 people were told to be on standby for possible evacuation this morning but that the danger posed by the cloud appeared to be easing.

A dike collected most of the sodium hydroxide, a caustic substance used to clean drains, Bell said. It can cause oil to ignite, according to a 1980 Department of Transportation hazardous materials handbook.

At late morning, crews were using hoses to suck oil and sodium hydroxide from the ground.

″What a weird time time for this to happen - on Earth Day,″ said one resident, the Rev. Sharon Schwab. ″Maybe it will make people begin to realize that we need to do things so this sort of thing doesn’t happen as often as it does now.″ She said she heard a strange noise from the train ″like something was dragging or hitting the tracks wrong″ before the accident.

The 12 oil tankers that derailed carried more than 300,000 gallons of oil, Bell said. About 100,000 gallons ″give or take a few thousand″ had leaked from four ruptured cars, he said. The other eight oil tankers derailed but didn’t rupture.

Except for the tanker carrying the sodium hydroxide, the other train cars carried miscellaneous freight.

Firefighters had the fire under control ″to a point″ when officials decided to let the oil burn away, said Bob Walker, the director of hazardous materials handling for Armstrong County’s emergency services office.

″There’s product in Buffalo Creek, but it’s dark and the crude is black,″ Betsy Mallison, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Resources, said early today. ″We’re focusing on making sure areas are diked and boomed to keep most of the product out of the creek.″

″It’s so hot and volatile and it’s difficult for firemen to get in there and get a close look,″ she said.

Buffalo Creek flows into the Allegheny River 10 to 15 miles downstream. Communities along the Allegheny were told they might have to close their drinking water intake valves.

Dead fish were starting to rise to the surface in a two-mile stretch of Buffalo Creek, said Emil Svetahor, spokesman for the state Fish Commission.

Three firefighters suffered chemical burns, but their injuries were not serious, said Ms. Mallison. A mobile home was damaged.

″There was an instant when that one fireball went up that I thought it was coming right on us because you could feel the heat,″ said one evacuee, Rose Davis, 46, who lives in a trailer park near West Franklin Township. ″It lit our yard up like daylight. You could hear the roaring of the fire.″

The cause of the derailment was under investigation. The two train operators, who weren’t injured, were undergoing drug and alcohol tests under the Punxsatawney-based company’s policy, Bell said.

The train derailed as Earth Day festivities wound down 45 miles away at Pittsburgh’s Point State Park, where an estimated 40,000 celebrated the environmental awareness day.

Tens of thousands of people along the Allegheny were left without water earlier this month after a pipeline broke and spilled 75,000 gallons of mixed fuel.

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