Thousands of Chlorine Evacuees Return Home

GRANITEVILLE, South Carolina, January 18, 2005 (ENS) - Most of the 5,400 residents forced to evacuate after a train wreck released chlorine gas into the atmosphere have been allowed back into their homes, but residents remain displaced from an estimated 75 homes in the immediate area of the derailment.

Before dawn on January 6, a Norfolk Southern train collided with a stationary train and derailed in Graniteville, releasing chlorine gas into the atmosphere. Now, inspectors have completed air quality checks on more than 550 nearby buildings and indicate they have found no chlorine gas.


Norfolk Southern train lies derailed and leaking chlorine gas, in Graniteville, January 6, 2005. (Photo courtesy Aiken County Public Safety)
Three locomotives and 16 cars were derailed in the wreck. Hazmat cars involved in the derailment include three chlorine cars carrying gas and one filled with sodium hydroxide, a liquid.

The derailment and chlorine release killed nine people, injured about 250 others, and forced the evacuation of about 5,400 Graniteville residents who have spent the past 12 days in emergency shelters.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is conducting air monitoring and overseeing removal of the remaining chlorine gas at the site under the new National Response emergency management plan, which was developed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The plan went into effect the same day the crash occurred, but the agency has not commented on the effectiveness of the new plan by comparison with previous methods of handling such emergencies.

Since the beginning of the accident, Aiken County Emergency Medical Services reports 550 people sought treatment at area hospitals. Twenty-two people remain hospitalized.

The Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health, a contractor for Norfolk Southern Railway, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted about 70 home inspections on Saturday, bringing the total number of home inspections to more than 550. No home tests detected a presence of chlorine. Any residents, businesses and churches with concerns about their homes and buildings can arrange for an inspection by placing a request card on their front door or by calling: 1-800-230-7049.

Today, regular classes will resume at Leavelle–McCampbell Middle School and Byrd Elementary School, which have been closed since the accident.

The EPA and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control conducted air quality and surface testing on Wednesday at both schools. The air the children will breathe is safe, and anything they touch will be clean, the state officials said.


The site of the January 6 accident has been substantially cleared, and remediation and restoration are underway, Norfolk Southern officials say. (Photo credit unknown)
The Aiken County School District successfully ran a complete check of all electrical, plumbing, computer and alarm systems. A professional service is cleaning all floors and horizontal surfaces, and kitchen utensils. All food, except unopened canned goods, will be discarded and replaced with fresh food. Heating and air conditioning filters are being replaced and these systems will cycle fresh air through the buildings several times before children come back to school.

There has been at least one glitch in the town's recovery. The Aiken County Sheriff's Office, in cooperation with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, holds warrants for the arrests of 15 individuals, who changed the address on their driver's license to a Graniteville address and later were reimbursed by Norfolk Southern Railway for expenses.

The cause of the wreck is still under investigation, but at least one agency has taken preventive action already. The Federal Railroad Administration has issued a Safety Advisory warning all railroads that two accidents to far this year, including the one at Graniteville, were apparently caused by the failure of railroad employees to return manual, hand operated main track switches to their normal position - lined for the main track - after use.

The other accident where the manual switch was a factor occurred on January 8 when a Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway freight train was unexpectedly diverted onto a an industrial track in Bieber, California. The freight struck two loaded grain cars, derailing seven locomotives and 14 cars. Two railway employees were injured, and the initial damage estimate stands at $970,000.

The new National Response Plan will come under scrutiny by the nation's mayors meeting today in Washington, DC as the Homeland Security and Cities and Borders Task Force meet in a joint session to discuss the National Response Plan and first responder issues.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Sugarland, Texas Mayor David Wallace co-chair the Homeland Security Task Force.

Laredo, Texas Mayor Elizabeth Flores and Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick co-chair the Cities and Borders Task Force.

From the Department of Homeland Security, National Response Plan expert David Hagy will sit in.