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Small Kentucky town urged to evacuate after train derails, spilling chemicals

Two of the derailed cars were carrying molten sulfur, which caught fire after the cars were breached, officials said.
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/ Source: The Associated Press

MOUNT VERNON, Ky. — A train derailed and spilled molten sulfur in a remote part of eastern Kentucky on Wednesday, prompting officials to encourage residents of a small town to evacuate amid concerns about air quality.

Gov. Andy Beshear said in a statement that local officials in Rockcastle County were encouraging residents of Livingston, with a population of about 200, to evacuate. News outlets reported that a shelter was opened at a local middle school.

The derailment involving 16 cars happened around 2:30 p.m., according to Bryan Tucker, a spokesperson for railroad operator CSX. Two of the derailed cars were carrying molten sulfur, which caught fire after the cars were breached.

"Specialized equipment has been deployed to conduct air monitoring in the area as molten sulfur is known to release sulfur dioxide when it burns," CSX said Thursday in a statement. "Our immediate focus is on safely extinguishing the fire." 

The fire that started as a result of the derailment is 50% contained, NBC affiliate WLEX of Lexington, Kentucky, reported.

Sulfur dioxide can cause respiratory problems, depending on the concentration and length of exposure, the Environmental Protection Agency website said on its website. The gas is commonly produced by burning fossil fuels at power plants and other industrial processes, the EPA says.

Amounts of sulfur dioxide were above 5 parts per million in some areas near the spill, and above 2 parts per million in the city of Livingston, CSX officials said Thursday.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, healthy adults experience airway resistance when sulfur dioxide reaches 5 parts per million, and respiratory protection is required for exposures at or above 20 parts per million.

Officials told reporters Thursday that the evacuation order was advised because the fire from the derailment was causing a lot of smoke, which meant that people would be able to smell the sulfur dioxide in the air and experience symptoms as a result.

"[Evacuation] wasn't mandated but we went to each one of the homes twice and highly recommended that they evacuate," said a government spokesperson. "Some people chose to stay at home: that was totally their own decision."

Air monitoring will continue as long as the chemicals remain in place at the derailment site.

Two other cars involved in the derailment were carrying magnesium hydroxide, but CSX said they were not breached. The remaining cars were either empty or carrying non-hazardous products like grain or plastic, according to the statement.

WKYT-TV reported that one crew member was treated at the scene for minor injuries.

Beshear declared a state of emergency in the county.

“By issuing a state of emergency, we are ensuring that every state resource is available to help keep our families safe,” Beshear said.

He urged people to avoid the area to allow state and local officials to respond.

CSX is supplying food and other necessities to the communities that have been affected by the spill. About 112 people and their 40 pets were forced to spend Thanksgiving in hotel rooms in Mount Vernon, railroad operator CSX said during a Thursday afternoon news conference. They are being hosted in 91 hotel rooms provided by the company.