The Sept. 14 explosion from inside an intermodal container loaded on a railcar at Union Pacific’s (UP) Bailey Yard was contained within hours, allowing yard operations to resume. An investigation is under way.
UPDATE: According to a Sept. 19 Associated Press (AP) report, Adam Matzner, the chief investigator for the Nebraska State Fire Marshal’s office, “said Tuesday that investigators haven’t found any sign of a criminal act connected with the explosion, so the incident appears accidental. But the investigation is ongoing.” UP spokeswoman Kristen South told the news outlet that the railroad “is cooperating with the state and federal agencies while conducting its own review of what happened and how rail employees responded to find ways to improve how it responds to future incidents.” Also, a Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) spokesman told the AP “that he couldn’t provide any additional details about the agency’s investigation.”
The explosion, which occurred around noon on Sept. 14 at the 2,850-acre North Platte, Nebr., yard, led to an evacuation within a one-mile radius due to what the local fire department called, at the time, “toxic smoke,” which was generated when one of the chemicals being hauled caught fire, according to a Sept. 14 AP report. The evacuation lasted several hours in North Platte, which has a population of approximately 23,000 people and is about 250 miles west of Omaha.
UP spokeswoman Robynn Tysver told the media outlet that no one was injured and no railcars derailed. She said it was not yet clear what caused the explosion and that the fire was extinguished by 5:30 p.m., the AP reported.
According to the AP, the container was carrying “perchloric acid, which is used in explosives as well as a variety of food and drug products, Tysver said.” The fire spread to the container above the one that exploded, but not to the rest of the parked train, the AP reported on Sept. 15.
A volunteer at the Golden Spike Tower, built a few years ago “to allow people to watch thousands of railcars be sorted … on Union Pacific’s key east-west corridor,” told the North Platte Telegraph that “two plumes of smoke rose from the blast site,” according to the AP; “‘the east plume was like black smoke. The west plume was orange smoke, something like I’ve not seen from a fire,’ he said.”
Joanna Le Moine, Deputy Director of the Lincoln County Emergency Management Agency, told the AP on Sept. 14 that officials were “monitoring the situation and the weather to determine which direction the smoke will go ‘to help keep responders and citizens safe out of an overabundance of caution.’”
Since the explosion occurred “near the western end of the railyard and the prevailing winds were carrying the toxic smoke outside the railroad,” AP reported, “Union Pacific was able to continue operating part of the facility and keep trains moving,” according to railroad officials. UP resumed full use of the yard after the fire was put out, UP spokeswoman Kristen South told the AP.
According to the AP’s Sept. 14 report, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was monitoring the event, agency spokeswoman Sarah Taylor Sulick said; Scripps News reported Sept. 16 that the agency is not investigating. FRA officials were at the yard monitoring UP’s “response to the explosion,” agency spokesman Warren Flatau told the AP on Sept. 14.
The AP on Sept. 15 reported that the perchloric acid “dissipated in the air as it burned off,” according to North Platte Fire Chief Dennis Thompson, and that “air and soil monitoring in the area never showed any dangerous levels.” Thompson also told the media outlet that the other container “that burned in the fire likely contained memory foam—not another hazardous chemical.”
There is no ongoing risk to residents or rail yard workers, Thompson told Scripps News, but air and water quality are being monitored to ensure nothing changes. The media outlet reported that “any leftover residue [from the perchloric acid] was safely contained” and that “[h]azmat crews were careful to capture any of the water used to put out this fire to make sure that it did not seep into the ground water with any of that perchloric acid,” according to Thompson.
Now, state Fire Marshal and railroad investigators are working to determine the explosion’s cause, AP reported.
Earlier this month, FRA Administrator Amit Bose sent a letter to UP “to express serious concern about specific and significant risk to rail safety.” Following inspections at the North Platte rail yard, Bose said “compliance of the rolling stock (freight cars and locomotives) on the UP network is poor, and UP was unwilling or unable to take steps to improve the condition of [its] equipment.” The letter was addressed to CEO Jim Vena, President Beth Whited and Executive Vice President-Operations Eric J. Gehringer—and copied to Surface Transportation Board Chair Marty Oberman and six union officials. Vena has responded with a polite but firm letter to Bose some observers are calling “Railroading 101.”