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Acid leak eases; fumes keep residents away

Red Cross workers assisted people forced from their homes after Sunday's sulfuric acid spill.
Red Cross workers assisted people forced from their homes after Sunday's sulfuric acid spill.  

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee (CNN) -- A sulfuric acid leak from a derailed train eased Monday, but a thick, billowing cloud of hazardous gas kept thousands of east Tennesseans from returning to their homes, emergency officials said.

The escaping fumes over Fort Loudoun Lake appeared nearly indistinguishable Monday morning from the Tennessee Valley fog. The Knox County school system closed seven schools in the western end of the county because of the spill.

The leak began Sunday morning when a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed about 20 miles southwest of Knoxville, rupturing a tank car carrying sulfuric acid for the U.S. military. A hazardous materials team worked through the night to clean up thousands of gallons of the acid, officials said.

"The leak has slowed down a little bit," Knox County Emergency Management Agency spokesman Ronnie Patterson said.

Authorities evacuated 3,000 people from the populous Turkey Creek and Farragut communities, emergency officials said, and put another 8,000 under a voluntary evacuation notice or warned them they could be subject to evacuation. Patterson said there was "no change" in the evacuation status Monday morning.

The American Red Cross and authorities set up shelters across the city.

Another spokesman at the Knox County Emergency Management Agency said officials were "definitely avoiding any type of projection" about when residents might return home "because it's so unpredictable down there."

No casualties were reported from the accident or from the ensuing toxic spill, Knoxville police said.

The Norfolk Southern train was en route from Allentown, Pennsylvania, to Birmingham, Alabama, and had 141 cars and three locomotives, said Susan Terpay, a company spokeswoman. She said 24 cars and two locomotives derailed.

The cause of the accident, which happened at 11:23 a.m. EDT Sunday, is under investigation.

One of the derailed cars contained the chemical, known as fuming sulfuric acid, Terpay said.

A military shipment, including two Army tanks on a flatbed car, was attached to one containing the sulfuric acid, but the military shipment was not connected to the sulfuric acid, Terpay said. Knox County Sheriff Tim Hutchison said that the tanks "contain no ammunition" and are secure.

A hazardous materials team from Norfolk Southern is trying to neutralize the gas with chemical agents, Terpay said.

Hutchison said he believed the cleanup operation would be "long term."

Sulfuric acid fumes are extremely irritating, and direct contact with them can cause blindness. The acid is commonly found in car battery acid, some toilet bowl cleaners, chemical munitions and some fertilizers.

The immediate effect of exposure to the fumes is irritation to the eyes, nose and throat and difficulty breathing. Prolonged exposure can cause extensive damage to the mouth, throat and stomach, while ingestion of the acid in its liquid form may be fatal.




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