Train Accidents – Toxic Spills
The freight train is a powerful vehicle that is still used today for the transportation of some of the most rudimentary elements of our economy across the country. Freight trains across the country are often transporting raw and bulk materials such as coal, ore, and grain. In addition to basic goods such as these, they are by far safer vehicles to be trusted with hazardous materials than are commercial trucks. As such, they are often used to transport dangerous chemicals such as chlorine gas – materials that must be treated with nothing short of the highest degree of safety and care. While no parties involved want these deadly chemicals to be released, derailments do occur and trains are not invulnerable. In cases where railroad companies lack adequate safety precautions, deadly derailments and toxic spills can result from simple human errors.
Toxic spills from trains can, and unfortunately do, have a devastating impact upon entire towns and communities. In some cases, even when responsible, railroad companies fail to provide compensation for these deadly events. If this situation describes yours or your community, it would be in your best interest to consult legal help with an experienced train accident lawyer. Our attorneys and staff take the risks, dangers, and tragic losses associated with toxic spills very seriously, and we will use our nationally-renowned expertise to deal with your situation if you have been a victim. Contact us and we’ll set up a free initial consultation to help you determine the best path forward.
What Causes Toxic Spills?
Any accident involving a train that is carrying hazardous cargo can result in a toxic spill. However, these types of spills are most commonly associated with derailments, which involve a train actually leaving the rails and coming to rest on its side. Trains carrying hazardous cargo don’t transport passengers, so derailments, fortunately, don’t usually lead to serious injuries for those on board. Instead, those who live in the communities near the spill face the most risk when it comes to injury. Last year, for example, a freight train derailed in northwestern Washington D.C., causing a tank car to rupture and leak several hundred gallons of sodium hydroxide near a subway station that was in close proximity to the accident. Sodium hydroxide is a caustic substance that is used primarily to produce household products, such as detergent and paper. In an effort to prevent injury to bystanders, emergency crews worked around the clock to plug the leak and clean up the spill. Fortunately, no one was injured and the fire department was not forced to order evacuations around the accident site.
Sadly, bystanders are not always able to avoid injury. For instance, in a train derailment that occurred four years ago in New Jersey, 23,000 gallons of vinyl chloride gas were released after the bridge on which the train was traveling collapsed. Vinyl chloride gas, which is used to make chemicals, plastics, and adhesives is toxic, and in this case, was released directly into the air, although some were dissolved in the waters of a nearby creek, which fed into the Delaware River. Nearby schools were ordered to seal off their buildings, while officials established an evacuation zone in the area. Removing the derailed cars from the creek, clearing the railway, and removing the remaining 600 gallons of gas from the breached tank took more than two weeks. Unfortunately, even after the immediate threat had passed, around 20 people were hospitalized for respiratory distress caused by inhaling the vinyl chloride vapor.
These types of traumatic accidents occur at a surprisingly high rate and can have devastating consequences for train employees and those who live or work near the crash site. For this reason, toxic spill victims should strongly consider speaking with an experienced train accident attorney about seeking compensation for their losses.
Derailments, like any other type of train accident, can have a number of different causes. However, most accidents that involve derailments can be linked to a defect in the railroad tracks themselves, such as:
- Broken rails and welding;
- Bolt hole cracks;
- Cracks in the base of rails;
- Flattened or burned rails;
- Flaking or chipped steel;
- Buckled tracks;
- Malfunctioning switches; and
- Fractures in the railheads.
While some of these problems could be attributed to improper construction or the use of inferior materials, most are the result of improper maintenance. Federal regulations specifically attempt to prevent this by requiring railroad companies to regularly inspect their rails, crossings, turnouts, and switches at least once a month and in person. Unfortunately, companies that fail to comply with these rules put thousands of people at risk of injury every year. In fact, it is estimated that as many as one-third of all derailments can be attributed to track failure. Other causes for the majority of derailments include issues with the elevation and gauge of the track, broken wheels, problems with track alignment, bearing failure, and axle defects. Improper train handling, such as speeding into a turn can also result in a derailment and subsequent toxic spill.
The Dangers of Toxic Spills
Train accidents always pose a risk to the safety of passengers, employees, and bystanders. Toxic spills, caused by derailments, however, have the potential to cause serious injury for anyone who lives nearby the crash site. Although the severity and type of injuries sustained by derailment victims depend on the specific type of substance that a person is exposed to, it is not uncommon for victims of toxic spills to suffer from:
- Extreme respiratory irritation, which includes coughing, nose bleeds, fever, chills, and tightness in the chest;
- Permanent eye damage or blindness;
- Severe burns to the skin, throat, or eyes;
- Liver and kidney damage;
- Fluid build-up in the lungs;
- Headaches, nausea, and vomiting; and
- Permanent lung damage.
Freight trains carry hundreds of different types of chemicals and substances that if inhaled or touched could cause any one of these injuries. However, certain substances, which are regularly transported via train are of particular concern. For instance, ammonia, which is used to make fertilizer, detergents, and pesticides is colorless, although it does have a strong odor and if inhaled can cause lung damage or if touched, can cause skin irritation and blindness. Chlorine gas is another commonly transported gas that is used to make disinfectant chemicals and bleaching products. Acute exposure to this substance can cause fluid to build up in the lungs, but can also cause throat and eye irritation and severe burns. Hydrogen fluoride, a corrosive substance that can take the form of either a liquid or a gas, and is used for making gasoline is also often shipped via railroad and can cause respiratory failure and permanent liver and kidney damage in the event of long term exposure.
Any one of these injuries could put a victim out of work for weeks or even months while he or she recuperates. Furthermore, treatment can cost thousands of dollars, even for injuries that won’t have permanent consequences. These costs can take an extreme financial, physical, and emotional toll on victims and their families, so if you or a loved one suffered an injury after a train derailed and spilled a dangerous chemical near your home or workplace, it is important to consult with an attorney who can help you seek compensation for your medical bills and other losses.