Derailment near Big Pasco spills methanol

A half-mile-long runaway freight train with 46 freight cars uncoupled and rolled backward a couple of miles early Monday, ramming into an oncoming freight train near Big Pasco.

The 3:40 a.m. accident derailed two locomotives hooked in tandem on the second train that was pulling 31 freight cars and caused a tanker car to spill about 10,000 gallons of methanol.

No one was hurt in the crash, which derailed or overturned 10 cars, said Gus Melonas, BNSF Co. spokesman. The crash was on BNSF property, just north of Port of Pasco property.

Three railroad workers in the cab of the locomotive that took the brunt of the collision from the runaway cars managed to scramble away unharmed because other railroad employees radioed ahead to the cab crew to flee to safety.

Melonas said a faulty coupler is suspected of breaking loose on an 80-car train as it headed north toward the hump yard near Fourth Avenue north of downtown Pasco. It's not clear how fast the runaway cars were going.

It is about five miles between the hump yard and where the crash happened just west of East Road 40 at the far east end of Big Pasco. Melonas said exactly where the train separated is being investigated.

Chief Les Litzenberger with Franklin Fire District 3 said early reports indicated the train broke free about halfway between Big Pasco and the hump yard. That would be close to where the tracks cross Lewis Street.

Melonas said the two locomotives on the second train stayed upright, but the first three tanker cars behind them were knocked off the tracks and onto their sides, scattering their wheels and axles.

Liquid methanol began leaking from one of the 30,000-gallon cars, while the two others containing calcium chloride did not spill.

Seven other cars in the runaway train also left the tracks. Two contained corn syrup, two held ammonium nitrate in pellet form and two were carrying paper. One other car was empty, Melonas said.

About 75 people from a half-dozen fire departments and emergency service agencies gathered at Big Pasco on Monday morning while the situation with the leaking methanol was assessed.

Litzenberger said the all of the Big Pasco Industrial Park was evacuatedinitially, but by 9:30 a.m. the evacuation zone was reduced to an area about 1,000 feet wide by a half-mile long at the east end of the industrial area between roads 30 and 33 and north of Crane Street.

Employees with Lampson International, Craftwell and Columbia Pallets were not allowed to work in the area until noon, after emergency crews decided the potential risk of a methanol fire had dissipated.

Melonas said the BNSF main line was not affected at any time during the incident and trains continued traveling in the area.

Franklin County Emergency Management Services' mobile command center was set up at the Port of Pasco maintenance building, with more than 20 emergency vehicles parked nearby.

Agencies that responded included Pasco, Kennewick, College Place, Richland and Hanford fire departments, Benton County Fire 1 and 4, Franklin Fire District 3, Yakima and Walla Walla fire districts and the Tri-County Hazardous Materials Team.

Litzenberger said the first action was to determine the extent of the leak, how much methanol had escaped and to build an earthen dam around the affected area.

With near-freezing nighttime temperatures, the risk of methanol catching fire was small, but the chief said the situation could have become serious as the methanol evaporated.

"This is much better happening today with cooler weather than having it in August," Litzenberger said.

By noon, the leak in the methanol tank was plugged and what remained of the spilled methanol had seeped into the soil, virtually eliminating any fire hazard, the chief said.

Emergency crews spent the afternoon pumping out the damaged methanol tank car into other containers.

"The nice thing is it was cold," Litzenberger said.

BNSF and its environmental cleanup contractor, NCR in Pasco, will do the remedial cleanup, the chief said.

A couple of fire engine crews were to remain at the site overnight to ensure there were no other problems.

-- John Trumbo: 582-1529; jtrumbo@tricityherald.com