An Alaska Railroad train heading south from a Fairbanks area oil refinery derailed early Wednesday near Talkeetna, spilling jet fuel about 1,000 feet from the Big Susitna River.
Ernie Piper, a railroad vice president, put the size of the spill at 80,000 to 120,000 gallons, making it the second largest fuel spill in the railroad's history, or at least since it was turned over to the state in 1985. Keeping the fuel out of the river will be a top priority, he said. It was the second fuel train to derail in two months.
The train - four locomotives pulling 53 tank cars - derailed at 2 a.m. at Gold Creek, an area 36 miles north of Talkeetna that is inaccessible by road. Three of the locomotives and the first 15 tankers left the track. The second and third cars were thrown some 200 feet into the woods, Piper said. Four of the tankers were leaking fuel, and Piper said they were expected to drain completely.
The three railroad workers on board were not hurt. They departed on the lead locomotive, which remained on the tracks.
No spill-response crews could get to the site Wednesday to assess the situation.
A heavy snowfall followed by rain made driving difficult, grounded helicopters and brought snow and mud slides to the railroad track.
"We have been dealt a difficult hand here with the weather," said Brad Hahn, the on-scene coordinator for the Department of Environmental Conservation, who spent the day in Anchorage.
An assessment team made it by road to Talkeetna on Wednesday afternoon and would have ridden the rails to the derailment site. But by then small avalanches had come down, blocking the tracks as the daylight ran out. Piper said he expected the slides would be cleared in time for the assessment team to reach the site by morning.
Meanwhile, two trucks carrying vacuum and cleanup equipment from Fairbanks slid off the road en route, he said.
The railroad sent similar materials north from Anchorage. Workers, equipment and supplies are converging on Talkeetna, he said, and expect to move in on the site today.
The deep, wet snow will make it difficult to move about the accident scene, but it is also serving as a temporary absorbent material, soaking up the fuel, Piper said.
LeeRoy Zeroth lives less than a half-mile north of the site and owns another cabin that sits about 200 yards away from it. He walked in to check out the spill Wednesday.
The tank cars "are kind of all piled up into one spot there," he said.
The ground is frozen, and the heavy, wet snow may inhibit the fuel's spread to the river, he figured.
"It isn't going to go anywhere (right away)," Zeroth said. "But there's a lot of fuel there, and it will get down in the river if they don't take care of it."
Zeroth said he and his wife, Kathy, were asleep when the derailment occurred. They didn't hear anything, he said, but something woke him up during the night.
"I thought it was an earth tremor," he said.
He described the area as generally flat, surrounded by woods and less than a quarter-mile from the Susitna River.
"My big concern is we have a business up there," Zeroth said. He and his wife rent out the cabin nearest the site, and the area is inviting to fishermen, hikers and mountain bikers, he said.
Salmon eggs spend the winter in the Susitna, which also supports Dolly Varden, grayling and other fish, said Claudia Slater of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
"It's clearly a very important fish stream," she said.
Jet fuel is essentially kerosene. It is a yellowish to white liquid and smells of petroleum. Prolonged exposure to the fuel, known as JP-8, is known to cause liver, kidney and neurological damage in animals, according to a news service of the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.
Gold Creek is about four miles from Canyon, where the daily fuel train from the Williams Alaska Petroleum Co. refinery in North Pole derailed Oct. 31, spilling about 12,000 gallons of jet fuel. Piper said the derailments don't appear related.
The Halloween derailment was traced to the lack of special hardware needed to control the couplers on two of the smaller locomotives, Piper said.
Wednesday's derailment occurred at a switch for a rail siding. The fuel train had gone into the siding to allow a northbound freight train to pass. The fuel train then backed up onto the main line, went forward through the north switch and was partway through the south switch when it derailed, Piper said.
The train was traveling at 30 mph when it went off the track. The speed limit for that stretch of track is 40 mph, Piper said.
Jeff Cook, a vice president with Williams Alaska Petroleum, said railroad officials have told the company the tracks should be back in service in five to seven days.
If that's the case, "we'll be fine," Cook said. "We have a built-in storage capacity at North Pole and in Anchorage to account for unforeseen circumstances."
After the Halloween derailment, an EPA official suggested the railroad consider bringing catch basins, hoses and pumps on the fuel train.
It wouldn't have helped on Wednesday, Piper said.
"There's not much you can do when you have four 22,000-gallon tanks emptying their contents," he said.
The Halloween derailment has served to improve the response to the Gold Creek spill, Piper said. The railroad and the other response agencies are more used to coordinating their work and using their new "incident command" management system, he said.
"Unfortunately, practice helps,"
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