Thursday, April 27, 2017

Union Pacific train car carrying used Lithium Ion batteries explodes and catches fire near downtown Houston, Texas

A train explosion on Sunday evening blew out windows and sent a chemical stench across downtown Houston.

The shock from the blast could be felt as far as a mile and a half away.

Houston Independent School District board member Diana Dávila had just finished watching the Rockets playoff game with her family when they heard the loud boom.

About two minutes later, she could smell something acrid.

"We didn't let my nieces and nephews play basketball outside afterward," Dávila said. "Not until we knew what it was, and the smell was gone."

When Houston firefighters arrived at the scene, the Union Pacific conductor told them the materials on the car were "nothing hazardous," according to Capt. Ruy Lozano.

Thirty minutes later, Union Pacific explained that the car held lithium ion batteries on the way to San Antonio for recycling. The cause of the explosion is still under investigation.

Union Pacific spokesman Jeff DeGraff said the batteries are not hazardous, and air monitoring after the incident found nothing toxic. But safety data says lithium fumes are irritants to lungs, eyes and throats.

No shelter in place was issued to nearby residents, and no notifications were sent to the public about what happened.

Dávila and her family didn't know details until her nephew pulled up some news on social media 40 minutes later.

Air Alliance Houston is backing a bill in the state legislature to create a system of push alerts to mobile phones during any chemical incident that would "substantially endanger human health or the environment."

Right now, the decision on when to alert the public in the immediate aftermath is left to local agencies. Federal regulations require companies to report toxic releases over certain amounts to the appropriate agency but do not mandate immediate public disclosure in an emergency.

"It's going to happen again," Air Alliance outreach director Leticia Ablaza said. "We just feel like we're in the dark on the companies utilizing the railroad and what materials are being shipped."

A Houston Chronicle investigation last year found that city officials have no idea what's being transported through Houston, as no government agency tracks what's coming and going on the highways and rails.

The city also has no control over when and where hazardous materials are transported on rail routes.

Federal regulations leave that decision to rail carriers.

"We do have the discretion to select the most efficient route," DeGraff said. "The other option is putting it on trucks going on 610, I-10, and all around. Rail is the safest way to carry it."

When rail companies do move hazardous materials, they are under no obligation to notify authorities. Air Alliance Houston is urging people to seek medical attention if they have symptoms. Union Pacific is asking those affected by the explosion to call 281-350-7390 to make a claim


HOUSTON - KHOU 11 found cleanup crews on the 1200 block of Chapman Monday afternoon picking up the debris from a train car explosion.

Inside of the nearly half dozen industrial-sized dumpster containers were the remnants of the burned shipment of recycled lithium-ion batteries, electronics and laptop computers.

The fire smoldered for hours after the blast, filling the air with noxious smells and smokes, which KHOU-11 has learned can be a potential health hazard.

Neighbors living near the railroad tracks and environmental advocates say the incident has left them with unanswered questions.

“What information we’re trying to get is what was it that caused the explosion,” executive director Air Alliance Houston Bakeyah Nelson said.

A Union Pacific spokesman said investigators were making the rounds near the scene of the blast, speaking with neighbors and local businesses to assess the damage to their properties. He said nobody was injured and a direct phone line has been established for those wishing to file claims related specifically to this incident: 281-350-7390.

Neighbors fear this sort of incident could happen again and that they have no idea what hazardous material or chemicals may be passing through their neighborhoods. The scene of the explosion was eight blocks from an elementary school.

“One of the things about this incident last night is that there was no notification by Alert Houston about what was going on,” Public Citizen’s Stephanie Thomas said. “People didn’t know if they needed to shelter in place or if they were OK.”

Lithium-ion battery fires should not be extinguished with water, however, HFD fire crews hosed the blaze for nearly one hour after the explosion. KHOU 11 is still attempting to identify the line of communication between the railroad and fire crews shortly after the blast.

The Union Pacific spokesman says he was unsure if a particular decal is dedicated to cargo shipments containing masses of lithium-ion batteries and did not know if the train car involved in Sunday’s explosion had one that fire crews would have seen.

An Houston Fire Department spokesman said the responding crews to the explosion operated off of information given them by Union Pacific at the time, stating there were no hazardous materials involved in that specific train car.

Union Pacific says it does not consider lithium-ion batteries to be hazardous material.  Is this a joke?


HOUSTON - A train car carrying lithium batteries heading to recycling exploded just north of downtown Houston on Sunday.

The blast was so strong, it broke windows in nearby homes.

"The moment that I got into the threshold and got inside an explosion went off and it threw me into the other side of the door, so there was a tremendous amount of force – I had no idea what was happening." said Tashi Garcia, who lives nearby the railroad tracks.

After the ringing in his ears subsided, he said he checked out the damage to his home. There were broken windows and cracks along the walls.

"It looks like someone's just gone through, throwing stuff." he said.

A Union Pacific spokesman said the train's conductor noticed smoke coming from one of the train cars and stopped the train.

When he went to inspect it, he saw one of the cars was on fire.

The spokesman said the car was carrying a load of lithium ion batteries and was heading to a recycling center.

He said the batteries aren't considered hazardous material.

There were no reports of injuries after the blast.

Anyone who was affected by the blast can call 888-877-7267 to file a claim with Union Pacific.