The blaze that authorities initially said would end in a couple of hours instead spewed flames and smoke from a derailed tanker car for a second day Thursday with no end in sight, as crews scrambled to prevent it from igniting railcars loaded with toxic chemicals nearby.
Hundreds of people have had to evacuate, including the entire town of West Point and some people from the outskirts of Louisville.
The burning butadiene, a chemical commonly found in rubber used to make tires, can damage the central nervous and reproductive systems.
Workers were hosing down other railcars nearby filled with another corrosive chemical, hydrogen fluoride, which can cause severe respiratory damage.
All the water used to keep those cars cool, however, raised fears that contaminated water could wash into the confluence of the Salt and Ohio rivers.
The Environmental Protection Agency was monitoring water quality and quickly erected a dam to keep out contaminated water.
“This is as bad as it gets as far as a haz-mat incident, if it were to be released,” said Art Smith, an emergency coordinator with the EPA.
Three workers were hospitalized after the blaze ignited while they used a torch Wednesday to try to separate derailed train cars.
One of the workers remained in critical condition. Another worker, a contracted consultant, was released on Thursday, said officials with Paducah & Louisville Railway, which was operating the train.
The workers had been told the air was clear and they could use a cutting torch, said Gerald Gupton with P&L.
Asked if the workers who supplied those air measurements were responsible for the fire, Gupton replied, “Absolutely not. It was an accident.”
When further pressed about who was responsible, he said, “I’m not prepared to answer that right now. The investigation is being conducted.”
Otherwise, the main concern and biggest threat of danger was the cars filled with hydrogen fluoride that were within about 10 feet of the burning car. Gupton said those cars would be carefully moved so that the chemical can be removed.
Officials had expected the fire to burn itself out within a couple of hours, but more than 24 hours later, it was unclear exactly how long it would burn.
“We can’t get up and look in the hole and take any measurements with the conditions as they are,” Gupton said.
Evacuated residents who had lined up at a P&L outreach center to receive financial assistance were left with uncertainty.
“I’ve never heard anything about how long it’s going to be, I guess we’re just going with the flow,” said Casey Bynum, a West Point resident who had evacuated with her six children.
P&L Railway were reimbursing those forced from their homes for lodging, food, lost wages and other expenses. They can also receive $100 per day for adults and $50 for each child for each day they are displaced.
The train derailed on a line that runs between Paducah in western Kentucky and Louisville, which is home to rubber manufacturers and other chemical plants, most concentrated in the Rubbertown neighborhood.
The train derailed near Dixie Highway, a main corridor between Louisville and Fort Knox.
Nine of the 13 derailed cars were carrying hazardous chemicals.
The train was traveling from the company’s headquarters in Paducah to its Louisville switching facility, said P&L Railway spokeswoman Bonnie Hackbarth.
She said she did not know whether Louisville was the final destination for the chemical cars or if they were going elsewhere.
Records provided by the company show it reported a total of 13 derailments to the Federal Railroad Administration since 2008.
No injuries, casualties or evacuations were reported, the chart showed.