LAWTELL — Some evacuees began returning home Tuesday, almost two days after a Union Pacific train carrying dangerous chemicals derailed east of this St. Landry Parish community and forced residents within a mile of the wreck to leave quickly.
State Police Col. Mike Edmonson said the evacuation area was reduced Tuesday to a quarter-mile from where 27 cars in a 76-car, two-locomotive train came off the tracks at 3:30 p.m. Sunday.
The evacuation zone had been a one-mile radius from the wreck site, which affected 100 families comprising 250 people. About 100 people were allowed back in their homes after Tuesday’s decision, Edmonson said.
“Our No. 1 goal is a return to normalcy,” he said.
Peter Ricca, an emergency response supervisor with the state Department of Environmental Quality, said some corrosive chemicals — dodecanol, lube oil and sodium hydroxide — spilled for more than nine hours before the leaks from three overturned cars were sealed.
Three other derailed cars, one that stayed upright and two that overturned, were filled with highly toxic and flammable vinyl chloride. By dawn Tuesday, the upright car had been placed back on the track and later pulled away from Lawtell.
The vinyl chloride in the two overturned cars was pumped onto tanker trucks for removal, Edmonson said. The overturned cars were lifted onto flatbed trucks and transported to Houston later Tuesday, where they will be cleaned, he said.
By 9 a.m. Tuesday, the Union Pacific railroad line that runs parallel to U.S. 190 was opened again to train traffic. Meanwhile, crews continued work at the derailment site.
A section of U.S. 190 in the six-mile stretch between Lawtell and Opelousas will remain closed possibly until Thursday evening, Edmonson said.
Officials kept a quarter-mile evacuation zone around the site because of spill and repair equipment that needed unfettered access to the site, he said.
Still lying on the ground along the track were cars carrying less toxic materials or cargo deemed not toxic, Edmonson said.
“We’re moving as quickly as we can, but safely,” he said.
Union Pacific spokeswoman Raquel Espinoza said railroad personnel performed a routine visual inspection of the track three hours before the train derailed.
Espinoza said federal rail transportation rules mandate a visual inspection of that section of the company’s track at least twice a week.
“But because of the heat, we were inspecting that area every day,” she said.
Heat can create “sun kinks” that “could affect the track’s alignment,” Espinoza said. “I’m not saying that occurred, but when temperatures rise, we proactively inspect tracks on a daily basis,” she said.
The company does not know why 27 cars at the end of the train left the track at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, she said, and an examination of the derailment is underway.
At 1 p.m. Tuesday, residents waited at the Yambilee Building on U.S. 190 to sign documents so they could return home. Parish President Bill Fontenot said the evacuees needed to show identification to prove ownership.
Accompanying each family were two agents with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or with DEQ who used air-monitoring devices to measure air quality in each home before the families were allowed back in, Fontenot said.
Haley Leger and her three children left the Evangeline Downs hotel, where many evacuees stayed, Tuesday. Being forced to leave home amid the confusion Sunday was no fun, she said, and neither was the uncertainty of what to expect upon return.
“Oh goodness. I was scared. I’m still scared,” Leger said.
She said she feared lingering effects from the chemicals that escaped the derailed cars.
Antoinette Perkins said the Red Cross gave evacuees with vouchers and reserved lodging at area hotels.
“We weren’t sure what we needed to do” after the train derailed Sunday, Perkins said. “We were kind of stuck.”
Perkins said deputies told residents about the mandatory evacuation and where to get shelter.
Union Pacific has established a claims line for Lawtell residents who were or remain displaced. The claims process can be started by calling (877) 877-2567 then choosing option 1.