Crews Clean Up Utah Chemical Spill

Crews early Monday finished pumping toxic waste from a leaking rail tanker car that triggered the evacuation of 6,000 people, but they still don't know exactly they're dealing with.

Early Monday, residents were back in their home, the cleanup was under way and most of the closed highways nearby were about to be reopened.

The area downwind of the leak was evacuated Sunday because of fumes from the spill, Fire Chief Steve Foote said. Officials were angered that they could not pin down what was in the tank and the information they were given conflicted with their own observations.

The tanker car's manifest said it was sulfuric and hydrofluoric acids; the company told them it was hydrochloric, hydrofluoric, nitric and sulfuric acids. Late Sunday, the company corrected itself, saying the contents were phosphoric, acetic, sulfuric and hydrofluoric acids, and ammonia — all at a concentration of only 10 per cent.

"What's concerning to us is the concentration level," Foote said, saying the waste appeared to be of a much higher concentration.

The tanker car originally carried 13,000 gallons of nitric acid (search) at 94 percent concentration from Kennecott Utah Copper (search) — a mining, smelting, and refining company — to Darwin, Nev., Foote said. He said the tanker car, sublet to another company, was then loaded with the industrial waste — whatever it was — and the train arrived at the Roper Rail Yard in South Salt Lake shortly after 6 a.m.

It was supposed to be taken to Ohio, where the waste was to be solidified and buried, but the tanker was found to be leaking.

Officials spent all day trying to find out from a company they first identified as Phillips Environmental but later called Philip Services, what the tanker contained.

"The rules are absolutely specific," about detailing contents being shipped, Foote said. "Somebody dropped the ball here."

Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who visited the media center set up within viewing distance of the spill, expressed frustration over the lack of clarity about the railcar's contents.

"It's tough to know how to respond if you don't know the contents of the bulk container," Huntsman said. "We're talking about people's lives here."

"We will have a lot of questions for this company," Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis, of Omaha, said late Sunday. "It's very important that we get the correct commodity. That is one thing our shippers are very active with."

The leak got worse and the tanker wall began to soften, prompting the evacuation. Finally, specialized equipment arrived from Las Vegas that enabled crews to remotely pierce the tanker's side and begin pumping the waste into portable tanks.

The evacuation order was lifted at 10 p.m., and officials said the main Interstate 15 freeway and most other closed highways would be reopened by 5 a.m. Monday.

Six thousand gallons was pumped out, and it was believed about 6,500 gallons had leaked and soaked into the ground. Residue in the tanker and the contaminated soil will be neutralized with lime, and the tanker will be inspected. The affected area is about 20 yards by 100 yards.