Posted by: Rob | May 27, 2008

Hazards of the Industrial Society

Events occur everyday that make one wonder about the real dangers we face from “terrorists” bent on damaging our society and killing us. Recently, a BNSF train derailed near Lafayette, LA. The derailment resulted in a spill of about 10,000 gallons of hydrochloric acid. The resulting vapour cloud forced the evacuation of some 3,000 area residents. Quoting this article:

Saturday’s wreck spread a toxic cloud over Lafayette, a southern Louisiana city about 125 miles west of New Orleans. Five people, including two railroad workers, were sent to a hospital and treated after complaining of skin and eye irritation, state police said.

Hydrochloric acid can cause respiratory problems and skin and eye irritation.

Can cause respiratory problems? Well, that’s the understatement of the year! Thanks to my years of working in the chemical manufacturing industry, I’ve experienced more than one lungful of hydrochloric acid vapours. Even a brief inhale will stop you cold. Get enough of this stuff into you and it can virtually dissolve your lungs.

Trooper David Anderson said. “The stuff we’re dealing with is bad — very bad stuff,” he said.

I wonder if Trooper Anderson knows how bad it really is. Unless he’s had a lungful or two himself, probably not.

I was looking around a bit more and found this article, which states:

A train car carrying ethylene oxide, used in agricultural products and as a sterilizer for medical supplies, was overturned but was not leaking, said Rodney Mallett, a spokesman with the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality.

Good thing it didn’t leak. Ethylene oxide is sort of unstable. If it had leaked and reacted with the hydrochloric acid, the effects would have been impressive. If it had leaked, combined with air and found an ignition source, the effects would have been even more impressive. I tried to find an example of an EO tankcar* explosion, but all I came up with was this CSB** video of an incident at medical supply sterilizing outfit:

Despite the continuing efforts to make chemical transportation safer, incidents like these continue to happen. Overall, with an evacuation and a few comparatively minor exposures, everyone involved with this particular incident got lucky.

* EO Tankcars must be tracked.  If left on the rails for too many days, they sometimes have a tendency to “go off”.

** CSB is the US Chemical Safety Board.  It’s a relatively new body charged with investigating chemical plant incidents and mishaps, determining root causes and making recommendations that, if implemented, should mitigate future occurrences.  They’ve been pretty busy since the inception of the CSB.



  1. And yet, Homeland Security has not been working on the safety of our chemical industry or transportation industry post-9/11. Do I feel safer? Nein, nyet, no.

    Seattle has a rail tunnel under the city center. Scary stuff.

  2. Safe—I am not sure it is an attainable state. I am not a conspiracy theorists by nature, but with a little convincing—I could easily walk that road. Makes you wonder what the REAL terrorist weapons are, doesn’t it? Also makes you ask–who ARE the real terrorists? Dang, and I was just sitting down to a lovely dinner—now I lost my appetite. LOL

  3. It kind of reminds you of the old Far Side comics. A Day Care Center and a dingo sanctuary side-by-side with the caption, “Trouble Brewing”.

  4. silverstar: I have to admit that some things have changed. My employer has gone to great lengths to beef up the security of manufacturing sites in the US and around the world. What makes me wonder, though, is how can the vast number of trains (and trucks) hauling all manner of hazardous cargoes really be kept safe?

    Marsha: Sorry if I ruined your appetite…

    Uncle Keith: Trouble brewing, indeed. Confucious said “May you live in interesting times.” Aptly true for us today.

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