Cleanup, containment continue at overturned train

Air quality officials continued to monitor the area Monday evening surrounding 27 Union Pacific train cars that derailed Sunday, including three cars that contain highly toxic vinyl chloride, as a railroad repair contractor worked to rebuild 1,800 feet of track before trying to empty and upright the cars.

As crews worked on the damaged section of track near Lawtell, a rural community in St. Landry Parish, authorities accompanied evacuees who needed to temporarily return home to retrieve medicine, pets, clothes and other necessities left behind in the rush to leave that began after the derailment at 3:30 p.m. Sunday.

State Police Commander Col. Mike Edmonson said U.S. 190 between Lawtell and Opelousas probably would remain closed through Tuesday, and the mandatory evacuation order would remain in place until Tuesday afternoon at the earliest.

State Police and other emergency responders plan to hold a news conference at 11 a.m. Tuesday.

Edmonson said emergency officials regarded the situation as “fluid” because the tanks containing vinyl chloride could start leaking, though the toxic material remained safely contained Monday.

“They’re doing the things they need to do to keep that site safe,” Edmonson said.

He said crews from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Quality were monitoring the ground and air surrounding the derailment.

About 100 houses holding 250 residents were evacuated after the train derailed.

Evacuees are staying with family members or friends, or have checked into Opelousas hotels, said Capt. Megan Vizena, spokeswoman for the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office.

No one on the train or near the derailment was injured, officials said.

Workers with contractor Hulcher Services, of Port Allen, built earthen berms around some of the tanks to contain any toxic materials that may have escaped, said Mark Davis, a Union Pacific representative.

He said Hulcher crews had to rebuild the torn-up track and empty what’s inside the cars before the cars are uprighted and removed from the site.

Davis said the crews are working day and night.

The Union Pacific train had two locomotives pulling 76 cars east from Lake Charles to Livonia when the last 27 cars went off the track just east of Lawtell, Davis said.

Davis and Edmonton said authorities didn’t know Monday afternoon why the cars left the track.

Of the 27 cars that derailed, three remained upright though off the tracks, and 24 were on their sides.

Three of the train’s derailed cars were filled with toxic and highly flammable vinyl chloride, Edmondson said.

Three other overturned cars were leaking, but the leaks were sealed by 1 a.m. Monday, and Hulcher crews built earthen dams around those cars, Davis said.

Gov. Bobby Jindal flew to Lawtell late Sunday to view the damage, and declared a state of emergency for the area due to the “developing threat of release of hazardous materials,” according to the document.

Gregory and Elizabeth Gaspard had to leave their Lawtell home Sunday.

On Monday they returned briefly to pick up clothes, his golf clubs (“You never know when you’re going to need them,” he said.), and another person’s Pekinese dog the couple was caring for.

Before they entered their home, EPA contract workers David Bordelon and Robert Sherman walked through with air monitoring equipment.

Bordelon said the Gaspards’ home was their fourth walkthrough Monday.

After Gregory Gaspard fed noisy chickens kept in a coop in his backyard, the couple filled the trunk and back seat of their car before heading to their son’s home in Eunice.

Lawtell resident Shanetria Collingan was in Baton Rouge when the train left the track near her Lawtell home.

She got a call from a friend Sunday telling her she couldn’t return home.

On Monday, Collingan told sheriff’s deputies she needed to retrieve clothes so she could go to work Tuesday.

“This is my first time” experiencing a train derailment, Collingan said.

“That’s why I’m so overwhelmed. We had to wear the same clothes as yesterday,” Collingan said.

Others displaced by the accident were being housed at the Evangeline Downs Hotel, which quickly filled Monday.

Others were staying at the Comfort Inn, also in Opelousas, Vizena said.

Davis said Union Pacific has established a claims line for displaced residents, who can call (877) 877-2567 then choose option 1.