Safety restored after hazardous chemical leaked from train car, officials say

vaporized styrene monomer

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

“We want to cool it back down,” said Scott Dansey of why water on Wednesday afternoon continues to be sprayed on a rail car which had leaked vaporized styrene monomer on Tuesday.

BETHLEHEM — At noon on Wednesday, Scott Dansey, a senior staff member for SABIC Innovative Plastics in Selkirk, told the press that, in a day and a half, the hazardous situation, where a chemical had escaped from a train car, had been brought under control.

SABIC (Saudi Arabian Basic Industries Company) is a chemical manufacturing company owned by the Saudi Arabian government. It was formed, by royal decree, in 1976 to convert oil byproducts into fertilizers, polymers, and chemicals.

“Twenty-four hours ago, I didn’t think we’d be standing here, saying what we’re saying right now,” said Commander Adam Hornick with the Bethlehem Police Department.

Earlier in the morning, the businesses that had been shut down within a half-mile of the leak were told they could reopen, the road closures implemented the day before were lifted, and the local residents were told they no longer needed to shelter in place.

Hornick described events unfolding this way.

At 6:04 a.m. on Tuesday, SABIC in Selkirk called to report a styrene monomer had been released. The hazardous chemical additive is used in plastic manufacturing. People as far afield as Guilderland Center and Berne reported smelling the chemical.

According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, in humans, acute or short-term exposure to styrene results in mucous membrane and eye irritation, and gastrointestinal effects. Chronic or long-term exposure to styrene results in effects on the central nervous system, such as headache, fatigue, weakness, and depression; nervous-system dysfunction; hearing loss; and peripheral neuropathy.

After a recent exposure, laboratory tests can determine styrene by measuring the breakdown products in a person’s urine, according to the EPA.

Dansey said, “The initial incident that occurred yesterday was a venting of the rail car through a relief vent.” A rail car can hold about 180,000 pounds of liquid styrene; at the stationary rail car in Selkirk, the styrene monomer was vaporized through the relief valve, said Dansey.

In addition to local police and medical staff, people from state and federal agencies descended on the scene.

Hazardous-materials technicians worked “all night through the night on the rail car,” said Hornick. As Hornick spoke, he said SABIC staff as well as private contractors continued to work on the rail car, work that he said “will be ongoing for some time moving forward.”

Hornick went on, “We do not have a timeframe on when that will be. However, we feel at this time that the public safety threat … no longer exists.”

“I want to express a deep apology for the inconvenience and any impact yesterday’s incident might have had on the community,” said Dansey. He said his company’s first priority is the health and safety of its workers, of the community, and of the environment.

“Last night,” Dansey said, “through the efforts of our on-site hazardous materials technicians, we were able to secure the rail car, remove pressure from the rail car, which was the big goal … It has significantly reduced the risk to the environment and the community.”

Because materials in the rail car had reached “an elevated temperature,” Dansey said, “We’re going to continue to cool that car until the temperature is brought down to a safer level.”

Dansey said that other stationary rail cars on the site will be looked at “to make sure there is no further threat of anything repeating.”

He would not answer questions on how long the affected rail car had stood at the site, on how high the temperature inside the car had gotten, on how much styrene was in the car to begin with nor on how much remains in the car.

“We will start focusing on a very intense internal investigation that will look into the particulars of this car, what happened, and we’ll take measures to prevent this in the future,” said Dansey. He also said, “As far as this site is concerned, I don’t believe it’s ever happened.”

Hornick stressed, “There was no injury to anybody at any time.”

He also said that air samples at the site and in a larger area are being taken to evaluate the environmental impact of the leak. Air samples will continue to be taken, he said, “until the car is successfully off-loaded or mitigated.”

Hornick said of the air samples taken so far, “We have not seen anything alarming in those.” He added, “All of our monitoring … failed to show anything of hazard or danger.”

Asked about the cost of the leak, Dansey said, “We don’t even think about financial impact in incidents like this so it’s not really a question we even consider.”

Hornick recited a long list of agencies that had contributed to the clean-up. The list posted by Bethlehem Police includes these public agencies: Bethlehem Police, Albany County Sheriff’s, New York State Police, New York State Department of Environment Conservation Police, New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, Office of Fire Prevention and Control, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Albany County Emergency Management, Town of Bethlehem Emergency Management, New York National Guard Civil Support Team, New York State Department of Transportation, Town of Bethlehem Highway and Water Department, Albany County Executive’s Office, Town of Bethlehem, New York State Office of Emergency Management, Selkirk Fire Department, Elsmere Fire Department, Delmar Fire Department, New York State Department of Health, and officials from the governor’s office.

Hornick said the response had “taken a tremendous toll on those resources.” He went on,  “However, we worked together as a team to get this accomplished. There have been special-materials teams brought in from other parts of the country that are assisting as well, and numerous other agencies.”

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