A train carrying hazardous materials derailed in North Dakota late on Sunday night in the latest toxic railway accident to hit the US.
The incident happened less than two months after a train derailed near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, causing a raging fire and leaking cancerous chemicals near the small town of East Palestine.
The incident on Sunday involved a Canadian Pacific freight train that derailed around 11.15pm, according to initial reports, affecting 31 of the train’s 70 cars. Spilled cargo from the derailment included petroleum used to make asphalt.
Emergency response personnel and hazmat experts were at the crash scene, in a rural area of Richland county, on Monday morning. There was no fire and the spill occurred in a cold and snowy area, minimizing the threat to public safety, according to the rail company.
Officials will allow the spilled materials to freeze in order to aid the cleanup, which is expected to take seven to 10 days.
The derailment in East Palestine earlier this year sparked an outcry over what critics call insufficient safety regulation of the transportation of hazardous materials. Sensors on the track – whose parameters were set by the private rail company, Norfolk Southern – failed to alert conductors in time that a car bearing had become wildly overheated, according to initial findings by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
The Norfolk Southern train derailed 38 cars, including 11 known to contain toxic materials, causing explosions, a fire and a massive plume of smoke. The spilled cargo included vinyl chloride, a flammable chemical known to cause liver cancer. Rail officials, concerned at the prospect of the vinyl chloride exploding, chose to burn off the chemical in a controlled fire.
Residents in the immediate vicinity of the East Palestine derailment were ordered to evacuate in case of an explosion, but most were told to shelter in place. Officials from the rail company and from the US Environmental Protection Agency have said that the area is now safe, but some independent scientists and outside activists have expressed grave concerns.
Writing in the Guardian, Stephen Lester, a toxicologist at the nonprofit Center for Health, Environment & Justice, argued that the decision to burn off the vinyl chloride “unleashed a gigantic cloud full of particulates that enveloped surrounding neighborhoods and farms in Ohio and Pennsylvania”.
Burning vinyl chloride generates dangerous compounds called dioxins, Lester said, which are associated with the military herbicide Agent Orange and with Love Canal, New York, the site of one of the most notorious chemical disasters in the US.
His concerns have been echoed by Greg Mascher, a resident of East Palestine. In an op-ed in the Guardian on Monday, Mascher noted that his granddaughters developed bright red rashes on their bodies in the days following the derailment and that he has suffered from headaches and a chronic cough.
On Friday, utility officials shut down a nuclear plant near Minneapolis after discovering that water contaminated by radioactive material was leaking from the plant for the second time.
In November, the utility company Xcel Energy said that about 400,000 gallons (1.5m liters) of water tainted by tritium had leaked. This month’s leak was caused after a temporary fix appeared to have failed. Company and government health officials say that residents shouldn’t have any reason to be concerned.