Some people who live outside Alberton will be allowed to return home today if conditions at the site of a nearby train derailment and chlorine spill remain stable, the official in charge of the incident said.
But the town of Alberton, which is home to most of the 400 to 500 evacuees, will be closed to them until the hazardous chemical is unloaded from three derailed tank cars, which could take up to two weeks, said incident commander Scott Waldron, chief of the Frenchtown Fire Department.
From 200 to 300 evacuees were allowed to return home briefly Saturday to bring out horses and household pets and check the condition of cattle. They traveled in buses and vans accompanied by law officers, hazardous-materials experts and trucks to ferry animals out.
Veterinarian Stan Schwartz examined 21 horses that were brought out of the evacuation area and said all appeared to be in good shape, except for one that had a mild case of conjunctivitis or inflammation in one eye.
“I did not find any that have obvious respiratory problems or distress,” said Schwartz.
People who left livestock and pets behind told Schwartz they found the animals to be in good shape, he said.
Hazardous-cargo specialists hoped to begin pumping chlorine from three derailed tank cars today, transferring the toxic substance to other tankers.
“We notified the evacuated people that in the worst-case scenario, we could be looking at 14 days” to complete the job, said Lynda Frost, a spokeswoman for Montana Rail Link, which owns the track.
The railroad booked 407 motel rooms for evacuees, who were being housed and fed at its expense, Frost said. Rail Link also was trying to make arrangements so that any evacuee late in filing state or federal income tax returns would not be penalized.
Interstate 90, Montana’s principal east-west highway, remained closed near the site of the derailment, and traffic was routed along an 80-mile detour.
Officials at the scene Saturday said conditions had stabilized, and that concentrations of chlorine gas near the derailment remained low. But they said the situation still was dangerous because leakage might increase, particularly while chlorine is moved from tankers.
Jolene Molitoris, who heads the Federal Railroad Administration, visited the area Saturday and said she found local and state agencies exceptionally well prepared to handle the incident.
The derailment early Thursday sent more than 120 people to hospitals, mostly for treatment for lung irritation and difficulty in breathing. Two area residents were hospitalized in critical condition, but their conditions have been upgraded.
Frost said 18 cars jumped the tracks, including five tankers that overturned. Three cars leaked chlorine gas.
Hazardous-materials specialists at the scene said one of the cars had vented almost all of its 170,000 pounds of chlorine.
Another chemical, chryslic sodium, also leaked from a derailed tanker, according to Chris Hohol of Superior Services, a Milwaukee company that specializes in cleaning up hazardous spills.
The mixture of the two chemicals “made the cloud look worse, much worse than it actually was,” Hohol said.
Chryslic sodium, a derivative of sodium hydroxide, is a strong caustic used in metal plating and cleaning. It does not give off a gas but is dangerous if inhaled, Hohol said.
Map of area
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