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Railroad officials investigating cause of Colorado Springs train derailment, chemical spill

By: Chhun Sun
April 14, 2015 Updated: April 14, 2015 at 10:13 am
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Officials spent Monday investigating the cause of a railroad train derailment near the Martin Drake Power Plant in Colorado Springs and trying to quell concerns about the white chemical that spilled from the cars.

Mounds of ammonium sulfate pellets dumped from the derailed cars remained at the site of a 13-car Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway train that derailed at 10:35 p.m. Sunday. Seven of the trains' cars fell on their side, said BNSF spokesman Joe Sloan. It is unclear how much of the ammonium sulfate, which was headed for Denver, spilled, Sloan said.

The mounds of the chemical were covered with tarps Monday as officials waited for a contracting company to arrive on scene to remove it, Sloan said. He expected the cleanup to continue into Tuesday, and did not have an estimated time of when the ammonium sulfate - which officials first said was ammonium nitrate - would be removed. By early Tuesday morning, railway officials in bright-colored clothing were still busy working on the cleanup. A private security officer said the work hasn't stopped since yesterday. The crossing gates on Sierra Madre and Los Animas are still active, blocking through traffic.

Officials said Monday there were no signs of nor any reports of injuries because of the spill and the only people on the train - a conductor and an engineer - were not hurt. The cause of the crash is under investigation, Sloan said.

The Colorado Springs Fire Department reported via Twitter on Monday morning that no evacuations had been ordered, and a "protect in place" warning had been lifted.

Tom Gonzales, deputy director for the El Paso County Public Health Department, said the ammonium sulfate was in a dry pellet form and not a hazardous material. In pellet form, he said, the material can be hazardous if swallowed, put on skin when wet, or inhaled if the pellet is ground into dust. He advised people to avoid the site of the spill.

"I think the real underlying issue here is making sure this gets cleaned up before the predicted snow and rain event later in the week," Gonzales said.

On Sunday, an emergency notification went out to about 70 homes, telling people within a two-block radius of Sierra Madre Road and Las Animas Street to stay in their homes.

Several roads were closed, including south of Sierra Madre and Fountain Boulevard, Sierra Madre north of Mill Street and Las Animas west of Sierra Madre. Hazmat, seven fire companies and 38 firefighters responded to the scene. The train derailment took down at least two telephone poles and woke up neighbors in the area of the 900 block of South Sierra Madre.

Shane Stevens lives in a house near where three of the cars tipped over. He said the crash awakened him and his dog.

"I started to doze off. I heard the train and it sounded different than it normally does - just brake wise, screeching and the way he was blowing his horn," said Stevens. "It went nuts. I thought it was coming through my house."

Sandy White, who lives in front of the crossing gates on South Sierra Madre, said she reported to the railway company last fall that a section of the tracks - about one foot - broke off after a train came through, which made a loud sound and woke her up. As she was speaking Monday, three BNSF officials were crouching down and taking notes of that section.

"I don't know if that's normal, because I'm not a railway person," she said. "But it doesn't look good when I see it."

By early Monday morning, BNSF officials arrived with heavy equipment to start the cleanup and review the wreckage.

Colorado Springs Fire Department Capt. David Vitwar, liaison with the city's office of emergency management, said while the derailment was serious, it could have been much worse.

"If this is our one in a million train wreck, we'll take it any day," he said.

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