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Massive Fireball And Environmental Clean-Up From Controlled Explosion Of Derailed Railcars

Large explosion in a rural area along railroad tracks at night.
Juab County Sheriff's Office

A controlled detonation Sunday night in Juab County lit up the sky with a massive fireball. A Union Pacific freight train went off the tracks near Eureka in western Utah on Saturday derailing several railcars carrying dangerous materials, requiring a collaborative effort by state and federal agencies to contain railcars leaking propane and biodiesel.   

"There were 24 rail cars that got derailed. Nine of the railcars that derailed were carrying propane, and two of the cars were carrying biodiesel," said Juab County Sheriff Deputy Brent Pulver.

The Juab County Sheriff’s Office was one of many state and federal agencies that responded to the scene.

Several of these railcars were badly damaged when they went off the rails causing a propane leak. A joint decision was made by Union Pacific, state and federal agencies to not move the cars and instead minimize the risk by performing a controlled explosive vent and burn resulting in a large fireball that burned for several hours.

Craig Myers is the Environmental Protection Agency on-scene coordinator for this incident.

"Certainly from a responders safety and a human life safety perspective, this was the best way to proceed," Myers said. "This vent and burn operation is really kind of the last tool in the tool bag that is reached for in a situation like this. This isn’t something that you consider really right off the bat."

Union Pacific reports that the controlled vent and burn was successful. Next steps include a professional evaluation of the site conditions and taking any necessary steps to address environmental impacts.

According to Myers, the EPA responds to several similar incidents each year, but rarely are these incidents on mainline rails involving dangerous materials like this one in Utah.

Union Pacific will be responsible for physically removing the large amount of impacted soil under the supervision of the Utah Division of Environmental Quality.

"Typically in this situation, when we’re with diesel fuels and fertilizers it can go to a number of different types of landfills, in some cases it can be treated if the state allows it, like treated by bioremediation so the diesel fuels and contaminants are removed from the soil and the soil can be reused as clean material or in certain other applications, but that’s all really up to the state," Myers said.