Railroad, State Discuss Plans for Cleanup


While an armed guard on Tuesday patrolled hot spots of toxic hydrazine spilled in last week’s train wreck at Seacliff, Southern Pacific officials met privately with state and county environmental officials to discuss plans for cleaning up the site.

Ongoing air tests have shown no trace of hydrazine, a suspected carcinogen, rising from two patches of tainted ground near the tracks, said Richard Varenchik, a spokesman for the California Environment Protection Agency.

But soil tests must be done on the hot spots before Southern Pacific can decide how to remove any contaminated earth still left after an extensive cleanup operation last week, Varenchik said.


“We feel that there is not a health danger to the people out there at the present time,” said Varenchik of the state EPA’s Department of Toxic Substances Control, which is overseeing the cleanup. “If there was, we would not have allowed people back into their homes.”

Summing up some of the conclusions reached at the meeting with Southern Pacific, Varenchik said the railroad plans to test the soil in the hot spots in the next few weeks before deciding how to handle the cleanup.

In the meantime, the spots remain capped with 18 inches of sand, surrounded by wire mesh fencing, and guarded around the clock, he said.

Workers from the county Department of Environmental Health had been testing the air for hydrazine after trains passed in case the heavy cars forced any trace of the chemical out of the earth, said Terrence Gilday, the department’s technical services manager. Those tests all proved negative, but testing still is being done every six to 12 hours, he said.

Authorities closed a 10-mile stretch of the freeway and evacuated 49 homes at Seacliff on July 28 after 12 cars of a freight train derailed nearby.

An overheated axle bearing seized on a freight car and caused the train to jump the tracks just after noon, spilling eight 55-gallon drums of hydrazine and puncturing 15 others.

Hydrazine, used to make products such as shoe soles and drugs, is suspected of causing cancer and is known to irritate the eyes, skin and respiratory tract.

Eleven workers were mildly sickened during the cleanup operations on Thursday when they encountered fumes of hydrazine in an area that had been sprayed with a neutralizing chemical. But the workers were not seriously hurt, and others re-sprayed the area with the neutralizer--common swimming pool chlorine--before the cleanup continued.

Residents of the 49 houses at Seacliff were allowed to go home Friday night, a few hours after the California Highway Patrol reopened the freeway and ended a detour that lengthened a 20-minute commute into a two-hour trip on the back roads of the Ojai Valley.

Southern Pacific is expected to show its soil-testing plans to residents on Aug. 20, Gilday said.

Gilday said his department is satisfied with Southern Pacific’s approach.

“This is the state of things that we wanted to get to . . . that the site was stabilized, that it was no threat to anybody, and then a more leisurely approach could be taken to soil removal,” he said. “I thought it was a good meeting, and I think it was productive. It got everybody’s concerns out so that Southern Pacific could understand them and could take them into account as they wrote their plan.”

Meanwhile, the Ventura County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to end a state of local emergency declared two days after the July 28 derailment.

In support of the vote, Supervisor Maggie Erickson Kildee applauded the efforts of the county office of emergency services, saying, “It was a major job, and you did a good job with it.”

Times staff writer Hugo Martin contributed to this story.