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Train Derails, Traffic Shut Down on Busy Highway Out of Toxic Fears

July 29, 1991

SEA CLIFF, Calif. (AP) _ Hazardous material experts today worked to counter a deadly chemical that spewed from a derailed freight train, closing a 10-mile stretch of one of California’s main north-south highways and stopping all Amtrak service between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.

″I’m not sure how long it will take to neutralize it,″ said Bob Hoppe, a spokesman for Southern Pacific Transportation Co. Fourteen cars of the 42-car Southern Pacific train derailed midday Sunday.

It was the second Southern Pacific freight train to derail in California this month. On July 14, a tank car derailed in the Sacramento River Canyon, spilling a pesticide that fouled a 45-mile stretch of the river.

There were no serious injuries in the Sunday emergency. A television cameraman and a resident sickened by fumes were treated at hospitals and released.

More than 300 residents, beachgoers and campers were evacuated because of the spilled hydrazine; however, closure of the scenic coastal highway caused the biggest headache. Traffic was rerouted over a mountain road.

″It is causing a one- to four-hour delay. It is still backing up, bumper- to-bumper,″ said Officer George Myers of the California Highway Patrol. ″We don’t know when it will be reopened.″

Officials said a broken axle apparently led to the accident. Witnesses reported seeing the freight train spewing sparks for miles before the derailment.

The derailment occurred near an offramp to U.S. 101, a major north-south California artery, and sparked several small brush fires that were quickly extinguished, said Ventura County sheriff’s Lt. Gary Backman.

Four of the 14 derailed cars contained hazardous materials, Backman said. The derailment occurred about 75 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

A black-gray cloud hovered over the scene for several hours after the derailment. Authorities said the cloud was apparently caused by chemical reactions and not a fire on the train.

Fearing the cloud might be toxic, the CHP closed a 10-mile stretch of U.S. 101 and rerouted traffic onto two state highways, causing huge traffic jams Sunday on the winding roads.

The train carried 76 barrels of aqueous hydrazine, a corrosive liquid used in jet fuel, said Michael Brown, a Southern Pacific spokesman.

The substance, which has an ammonia-like odor, can kill. It also can cause severe injuries, including burns, nerve damage and damage to internal organs, said Julian Griggs, a spokesman for the Ventura County Fire Department.

Between 10 and 20 of the 55-gallon drums ruptured in the crash, Griggs said.

The hydrazine soaked into the ground but there was no immediate danger of leakage into ground water, county fire spokeswoman Sandi Wells said.

All Amtrak passenger train service between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles was closed by the derailment, disrupting travel on the main San Francisco-Los Angeles route, Amtrak spokesman Bruce Heard said from Washington.

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