After fiery train crash and bridge collapse, crews will take on environmental cleanup

In addition to replacing a section of bridge after this week’s fiery derailment and collapse, crews at Tempe Town Lake will test soil and water to determine the environmental impacts of chemicals that spilled from a derailed train car.

A Union Pacific Railroad freight train derailed shortly after 6 a.m. Wednesday as it made its way across an iconic 108-year-old bridge at the lake.

Eight to 10 cars caught fire and the bridge’s south side collapsed, sending three cars into an empty park and Rio Salado Parkway below.

Two of the cars contained cyclohexanone, a colorless industrial chemical that is used as a solvent and in metal degreasing, while the third contained a rubber material.

About 500 gallons of cyclohexanone leaked from one of the derailed cars into a city-operated storm drain that leads to a dry riverbed west of the lake, the city said. The car was uprighted and the leak was contained by Wednesday night.

Arizona Department of Environmental Quality will serve as the lead regulatory agency overseeing cleanup efforts at the crash site and will work with Union Pacific and Tempe to evaluate the incident and potential impacts, said Caroline Oppleman, ADEQ spokesperson.

Union Pacific will be responsible for testing the water and soil for contaminants under ADEQ’s supervision, Oppleman said. The company will work with ADEQ to identify areas that may need further investigation and remediation, she said.

“ADEQ is overseeing these activities to ensure that public health and the environment are protected and that a thorough environmental investigation and any necessary remediation is performed,” she wrote in an email Thursday.

Crews working to clear scene

More than a dozen local, state and federal agencies, including Phoenix fire, Arizona Department of Emergency Management and the Environmental Protection Agency, responded to the crash Wednesday to provide support as crews tried to contain the fire and leak.

Fire officials put a foam over the spilled cyclohexanone to trap the vapors so that it wouldn’t ignite in the triple-digit heat and crews worked well into Wednesday night to stand up the toppled car and stop the leak.

Containing the leak was the department’s top priority after extinguishing the fire, Tempe Fire Medical Chief Greg Ruiz said at a news conference Thursday.

Union Pacific contractors deployed containment booms, floating barriers typically used to contain oil spills, to block what Oppleman described as a “visible sheen” and debris on the surface of the lake. Containment booms float on the surface of the water, trapping materials as they move downstream, which will make it easier for crews to remove the material from the water.

Crews began cleanup work and moved to right the train cars and remove them from the area. That work slowed on Friday, when two workers were splashed with cyclohexanone while disconnecting a hose from the tank car. One was splashed in the face and taken to a hospital; the other was treated at the scene. Both workers returned to work the next day.

But Tempe fire officials said the incident could slow removal operations.

Clint Schelbitzki from Union Pacific said Saturday that nine of the 12 derailed train cars had been removed. He expected the cyclohexanone to be transferred from the derailed tank cars by the end of Saturday. On Sunday, crews will detonate a 150-foot section of the damaged bridge.

Crews will have to clean up the cyclohexanone that spilled at the crash site and the foam used to keep the material from igniting. It’s unclear what that process will look like.

There was no estimate in the days after the crash for how much cleanup efforts will cost or who will pay.

Tempe Mayor Corey Woods said on Wednesday that he “assumes” Union Pacific would pay those costs but that they would have to discuss further. On Thursday, Tempe Assistant Fire Chief Andrea Glass said it was too early to say how much the cleanup would cost or who would pay for it, but the city could seek to recover any costs associated with the derailment.

WHAT WE KNOW: Tempe Town Lake freight train derailment

“With any emergency, there are always efforts to recover any type of costs associated with response and damages,” she said during the news conference. “That’s a long process and that’s something that involves a lot of partners so it’s early on in the incident to determine where that comes from.”

Once the area is cleared, Union Pacific will assess damages to the bridge and track. City engineers will also assess damages to Rio Salado Parkway, the park and any other city-owned property.

Union Pacific testing for contaminants downstream of lake

In addition to cleanup efforts, ADEQ, Union Pacific and Tempe will determine what environmental impacts, if any, the crash had on the water in Tempe Town Lake and groundwater supplies.

Union Pacific submitted an initial plan to ADEQ to test surface water and sediment for contaminants, which the agency approved, Oppleman said.

The plan calls for Union Pacific to collect and test water samples from the spillway west of the dam and sediment samples in areas downstream of the spillway, she said.

Additional sampling is planned for the area of the spill, she said.

Reach reporter Paulina Pineda at or 480-389-9637. Follow her on Twitter: @paulinapineda22.

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