Public health was a valid concern Monday when 13 cars of an 84-car Norfolk Southern train derailed from the tracks in East Deer beside Freeport Road and plunged into the Allegheny River.
As a result of the mishap, two railroad tanker cars carrying hazardous chemicals landed upside down in the Allegheny River near the New Kensington Bridge. One of the railroad tanker cars was leaking chemicals.
The chemical leaking from the sunken tanker was anhydrous hydrogen fluoride — a dangerous substance to humans, fish and other aquatic life.
“The gaseous chemical, when mixed with water, turns into a corrosive acid called hydrofluoric acid,” said Don Bialosky, emergency response coordinator with the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Although Bialosky described hydrofluoric acid as “one of the nastiest acids around,” he also claimed that there wasn’t a significant effect on the river water because of the “slow leak” from the railroad tanker car. However, Bialosky also said that anhydrous hydrogen fluoride reacts with water, which still made it too dangerous for divers to get close enough to pinpoint the leak.
Allegheny County Emergency Management coordinator chief Robert Full said that a “good bit” of the chemical had leaked out of the railroad car into the river.
While most concern was directed toward the more than 200 residents who had been evacuated from the area, very little at the time, however, was mentioned about the Allegheny River and the waterway’s excellent fishery.
“Hydrogen fluoride is one of the worst chemicals to spill,” said Peter Siska, a University of Pittsburgh chemistry professor. “It can act as a systemic poison with long-lasting effects if you get too much within your body.”
Siska also added that the acid could cause death to any wildlife in the area. No wildlife or bird deaths as a result of the chemical spill have been reported.
Hydrofluoric acid is caustic, and used most commonly in the steel industry as a corrosive to clean steel, particularly stainless steel. It also is used for etching glass — basically being acidic enough to eat through glass.
What’s troublesome is that if the chemical can eat through glass and be corrosive to materials such as stainless steel, it easily could devastate fish and aquatic life in the river.
According to officials, the Allegheny River worked partially to neutralize the chemical. Because of millions of gallons of flowing water around the derailment site, leaking hydrogen fluoride gas, which turns into hydrofluoric acid when it hits the water, will cause damage to the aquatic life around the tanker.
“I wouldn’t rule out that there could be some dead fish as a result of this,” Bialosky said.
Checking water quality
Water authority officials throughout the Alle-Kiski Valley have been closely monitoring the river’s acidic levels, hoping no pollution problems would affect water supplies.
The Allegheny River is, by far, the cleanest of the Pittsburgh area’s five rivers — which include the Monongahela, Youghiogheny, Ohio and Beaver Rivers. The almost constant good quality water flow on the Allegheny River made detection easier than in most river systems.
“I spend most of the time at the derailment site, waiting for any word on a pollution problem. I was checking the immediate area for any sign of dead fish, and also made several trips down the river to check open-ice areas,” wildlife conservation officer Martha Mackey said. “At this time we have not seen nor have we had any reports of dead fish.”
Mackey noted that the ice cover on the river may be concealing some evidence of a fish kill from the derailment, and it may not be known for a while if a fish kill occurred.
“If we had a fish kill, we might not ever know for sure. By the time the ice melts and the river is easier to monitor, any dead fish might have been washed miles down the river. Then again, we might find some near the site,” she said. “Certainly the dilution factor has played an important part in lessening the impact in the immediate affected area and down river.”
With fingers crossed, Mackey said that she is just hoping for the best, and that the chemicals were too diluted to adversely affect any of the river’s fish.
“The Fish and Boat Commission is continuing to monitor the situation,” Mackey said. “Once we have the ‘all clear’ from emergency response personnel we will make an assessment of what impact the chemical leak has had on aquatic life.”