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Train transportation has been vital to the American economy for over a century. However, when trains carrying hazardous materials derail or have accidents, the consequences can be catastrophic. Below, we will take a closer look at some of the most toxic train spills in U.S. history, examining the environmental impact, human casualties and the measures taken to prevent similar train accidents in the future.
The Worst Train Spills in American History
Below are some of the most disastrous train spills in the United States that involved toxic materials.
1. Minot, N.D., Train Derailment
The Minot, N.D., train derailment occurred on Jan. 18, 2002. According to news reports, a Canadian Pacific Railway train was transporting hazardous materials, including anhydrous ammonia, when it derailed in the early morning hours. Several cars ruptured and released a cloud of toxic gas into the air, which quickly spread over the surrounding area.
The incident prompted the evacuation of area residents, with many people reporting symptoms of chemical exposure, including respiratory problems, eye irritation and nausea. One person died due to the incident, and hundreds of others were injured.
Ultimately, officials determined the derailment’s cause was a broken rail that led the train off the tracks. The incident highlighted the risks associated with transporting hazardous materials by train and increased calls for improved safety standards and better emergency response plans for communities near rail lines.
Cleanup efforts lasted several weeks. The incident also led to changes in hazardous materials transportation regulation in the United States, including implementing stricter safety standards and improved training for railway personnel.
2. Nemadji River Train Derailment
The Nemadji River train derailment occurred in 1992 near the town of Superior, Wis. A train operated by the Burlington Northern Railroad was transporting hazardous materials — including hydrochloric acid, caustic soda and chlorine gas — when it derailed and plunged into the Nemadji River. The accident released gallons of benzene, which spilled into the river and caused massive harm.
The incident prompted a large-scale emergency response, including evacuating hundreds of residents. Several people received treatment for exposure to dangerous chemicals, including respiratory problems and eye irritation.
Cleaning up the derailment’s aftereffects took several years. The resulting pollution killed thousands of fish and other wild and domestic animals. Officials made efforts to restore the affected areas of the river and the surrounding ecosystem.
3. BNSF Train Derailment in Custer, Wash.
Another train derailment occurred in Custer, Wash., on Dec. 22, 2020. A BNSF train derailed about 100 miles north of Seattle, causing a large fire and extensive damage to the surrounding area. The train was reportedly carrying crude oil, and several of the tanker cars derailed and caught fire.
The incident resulted in the evacuation of nearby residents and the closure of local roads and highways. The fire burned for several hours and damaged nearby buildings and infrastructure. Fortunately, there were no reports of injuries or fatalities as a result.
Sabotage caused the train to go off the tracks. The incident also reignited concerns about the safety of transporting hazardous materials by rail, particularly crude oil, which has been involved in several high-profile accidents in recent years.
It took several weeks to fully clear the area of debris and repair the devastation caused by the accident.
4. Dunsmuir, Calif., Train Derailment
A Southern Pacific Railroad train derailment in Dunsmuir, Calif., occurred on July 14, 1991. The train was carrying thousands of gallons of the herbicide metam-sodium. More than 19,000 gallons of Vapam, a weed killer and soil sterilizer, leaked into the river. This spill killed fish and vegetation and sickened hundred in the Dunsmuir area. More than 300 people underwent triage.
Ultimately, officials determined stringlining caused the derailment, which means the train attempted to straighten while rounding a curve. The incident impacted the instream habitat and wildlife, such as fish and amphibians. The resulting cleanup took weeks.
5. Mantua Creek Train Derailment in Paulsboro, N.J.
On Nov. 30, 2012, a train carrying vinyl chloride derailed on a bridge in Paulsboro, N.J., causing several rail cars to fall into the Mantua Creek.
The derailment released a large amount of dangerous, carcinogenic and highly flammable vinyl chloride into the air, necessitating the evacuation of hundreds of residents. Dozens of people reportedly received treatment at a local hospital for respiratory problems. The cleanup and investigation of the incident lasted for several weeks.
The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the derailment and issued a report that cited several factors — including a faulty signal, ineffective bridge maintenance and inadequate emergency response procedures — as contributors to the incident. The NTSB also made several recommendations to improve rail safety and emergency response procedures in the future.
6. Norfolk Southern Train Derailment in East Palestine, Ohio
One of the worst train derailments in recent history occurred in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3, 2023, on a route from Madison, Ill., to Conway, Penn.
The train was carrying toxic chemicals, and when it derailed, the chemicals ignited a fire that damaged 12 cars. Though authorities carried out a controlled release of the chemicals and burned off some hazardous cargo, citizens became concerned about the environmental and health impacts. Up to 2,000 residents evacuated soon after the derailment.
The chemical spill affected miles of stream water and killed thousands of fish. The following hazardous materials on the train leached into the air, water and soil.
- Vinyl chloride
- Butyl acrylate
- Ethylhexyl acrylate
- Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether
Prevent Future Train Disasters With Hazmat School
Toxic train spills can be disastrous for the environment and human health. While we have improved how we transport hazardous materials by rail, incidents still occur. We must continue learning from our mistakes and implementing measures to prevent similar incidents in the future. By doing so, we can protect our environment and communities from the devastating effects of toxic chemical spills.