OMAHA, Neb. — Nebraska authorities said they don’t expect any lingering problems related to Thursday’s explosion of a railroad shipping container carrying an acid used to make explosives because the chemical largely burned off and any residue was contained at the scene.
No one was injured in the blast at Union Pacific’s massive railyard in North Platte, and no structures were damaged. A precautionary evacuation of a one-mile area right around the fire only involved a few farmsteads for several hours because the fire happened in the west end of the railyard near the edge of town. The fire didn’t even spread beyond the shipping container on top of the one that exploded to the rest of the parked train.
North Platte Fire Chief Dennis Thompson said Friday this was the best-case scenario for an incident like this because of its isolated location and the quick response from his hazardous materials team and other agencies, including the railroad’s own experts. A team from the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency that happened to be passing through the area on the way to a training session in Western Nebraska even stopped to offer their expertise.
“Especially when we look at some of the incidents that we’ve seen recently around the country, this just couldn’t have gone any better,” Thomson said. “When we leave these things with no injuries or significant damage or loss of equipment or anything, or environmental impact, it’s a win by all means.”
Any railroad incident these days brings to mind the fiery Norfolk Southern derailment that happened in eastern Ohio back in February. That crash prompted a national reckoning on rail safety and a massive cleanup effort that continues in East Palestine, Ohio. But Thursday’s incident in the Union Pacific railyard was nothing like that.
The perchloric acid inside the container that exploded, which is used to make explosives as well as a variety of food and drug products, dissipated in the air as it burned off, Thompson said. And air and soil monitoring in the area never showed any dangerous levels.
He said the other container that burned in the fire likely contained memory foam — not another hazardous chemical.
Investigators from the state Fire Marshal’s office and the railroad are working to determine the cause of the blast.
Union Pacific was able to continue operating part of the railyard throughout the incident, and full operations resumed after the fire was extinguished Thursday evening.
The head of the Federal Railroad Administration did recently say that inspectors found an alarming number of defects among the freight cars and locomotives in use at the North Platte railyard, which is the world’s largest, during an inspection this summer. But there’ wasn’t any immediate indication that Thursday’s explosion were linked to those defects.
Agency spokesman Warren Flatau said Friday the FRA is conducting a full investigation to determine what happened and whether any of the work being done moving other railcars nearby contributed to the explosion.
North Platte is a city of about 23,000 people located about 230 miles (370 kilometers) east of Denver and about 250 miles (400 kilometers) west of Omaha.