LIVINGSTON — The wreckage splintered the pines like matchsticks and sowed the field with flames.
But even after the last fire had been snuffed out, a more insidious threat had leached into the earth beneath Livingston.
At 5:12 a.m. Sept. 28, 1982, an Illinois Central Gulf freight train staffed by a crew that had been drinking bourbon ran off the tracks just north of the Livingston Town Hall. Of the 43 cars that derailed, 34 contained hazardous materials or flammable petroleum products, and many breached, burned and exploded, spewing toxic vapors over the town.
Residents woke up thinking they had been thrown into a war zone or the path of an earthquake. One told a reporter she thought the world was coming to an end.
“We were so unprepared for something like this. ... In no way were we prepared to deal with this,” recalled Mayor Derral Jones, who was the fire chief at the time.
“We had one raggedy-ass old truck and about six guys who didn’t know what they were doing led by one guy who sure as hell didn’t know what he was doing,” the former chief said of himself. “I said, ‘Hell, I don’t know what to do, we’ll just evacuate everybody.’ ... No one could deal with that mess.”
The carnage was so great that it forced state agencies to re-examine their handling of hazardous material response.
Somehow, no one died in the disaster, a fact people around Livingston are quick to point out in a tone that expresses gratitude and a twinge of disbelief, even decades later.
And while life didn’t end that morning in 1982, for the town, it paused. First came the evacuations — over 3,000 people cleared from their homes, some for weeks. There was short-term emergency clean-up and the inevitable lawsuits. Rebuilding followed, and years of health monitoring.
The town is still in the age of the derailment. After the land was scarred and scoured, one spilled toxin remained, seemingly impervious to decontamination efforts. However, using new technology developed by NASA, the town has eradicated the final threat and is now preparing to close the books on the disaster, 33 years later.
Jones, 74, notes with satisfaction that he will outlive the incident that has cast a pall over the community he’s served for most of his life.
“Nobody dreamed we’d still be here 33 years later dealing with this,” he said.
After the crash, a new body known as the Livingston Intergovernmental Commission took control of a decontamination area of about eight acres near the crash site. It straddles U.S. 190 in an area north of the Circle Road Park and east of the Livingston Parish School Board central office.
The commission, using settlement money, excavated the decontamination site, digging at least 30 feet deep and hauling off the tainted soil, Jones explained. Then crews installed a compact layer of clay, essentially forming an underground bowl. Wells pumped groundwater to be filtered and flushed of contaminants.
When the train cars derailed, they spilled various chemicals that soaked into the ground. Most were cleaned up years ago, but perchloroethylene has proven more stubborn.
Also known as perc, the substance was once used in dry cleaning, but has since been shown to cause cancer. It didn’t burn up in the fires, it’s heavier than water and quickly sunk into the soil, and it could not be completely eradicated using traditional methods. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality would not allow the site to be developed until the concentration of perc dropped to a safe level.
Though the Commission received about $4.5 million from the railroad to monitor the decontamination and residents’ health long-term, by 2009, the end of the funding was in sight.
That year, Jones “rolled the dice,” said toxicologist Brad Droy.
The town’s engineering firm reached out to Droy’s company, Toxicological & Environmental Associates Inc., and he began forming a plan to use a relatively new substance created by NASA known as Emulsified Zero-Valent Iron, or EZVI. It was first field-tested at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in 2002, and wasn’t made commercially available until 2005, so in the world of large-scale cleanup of carcinogenic industrial cleaning agents, it was still pretty new on the scene.
Droy was going to mix it with vegetable oil and inject it into the ground.
It was an “innovative” solution, said DEQ environmental scientist Tommy Doran, who has been assigned to the derailment cleanup for the past four years.
His department regularly tests the decontamination site, and for four straight quarters, the concentrations of perc have dropped to safe levels.
Droy said his firm is preparing the site closure report and plans to submit it this month. A final DEQ review will take a few weeks, but if everything is in order, the site will be released from monitoring early next year, Doran said.
Plans for the site are still being considered. The Intergovernmental Commission will be dissolved once the matter is put to rest and plans to donate the land to the town. Jones is thinking about trading or donating at least some of the property to the school system, which has offices on an adjacent plot. Superintendent John Watson expressed interest in building a new facility to host professional development, since the parish doesn’t have a site dedicated to training staff, but he emphasized that nothing has been finalized.
The 21st Judicial District also will have to distribute the last of the outstanding settlement money, though with the impending closure of the contamination site, a large portion has already been spent.
After the derailment, Illinois Central Gulf was ordered to pay a $39 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit. When it came time to cut the checks, the court had to briefly locate to the parish fairgrounds to make room for the 3,414 plaintiffs to claim their shares.
“It was a landmark case,” said attorney Calvin Fayard, one of at least nine lawyers who represented the residents.
Not only were thousands of plaintiffs involved, but the settlement required the railroad to provide free health screenings to residents, Fayard said. The settlement also resulted in the creation of the Intergovernmental Commission specifically to oversee the long-term cleanup.
Another million dollars was set aside for any future claims related to the derailment, such as health issues. However, doctors, who performed checkups and bloodwork on the company’s dime for more than 20 years, never found a link between the toxic spill and incidents of cancer, Jones said. Judge Bruce Bennett added that none of the money has been paid out.
The fund was invested and is now worth about $3.5 million, the judge said. When the Commission disbands, the pot will be split between the town and parish. The Livingston town aldermen have already approved a plan to use most of their share to build a new water tower currently under construction. Bennett plans to order the parish to dedicate their portion to the courthouse fund, since the parish is responsible for the new building but it was constructed with money generated from user fees.
Bennett is retiring Jan. 1 after 28 years on the bench, so he has overseen the decontamination and monitoring since taking office.
“I’ve had this case for my entire career,” he remarked.
The class-action settlement was unique because Bennett’s predecessor decided not to award payouts to the parents of children named in the suit. To make sure the money went to the juveniles, their shares were placed into trusts managed by the court, to be paid out when they turned 18.
“I guess I was sort of a stepfather to half the kids in Livingston,” Bennett said.
There were criminal proceedings as well. The entire team was fired and the engineer, who had been drinking with a brakeman at a layover in Baton Rouge and allowed an untrained secretary to take the controls at the time of the crash, was sentenced to a year behind bars and a $10,000 fine, according to Livingston clerk of court records.
“This was a case of bad judgement, whiskey and women,” said attorney John Sinquefield, who was called in from the East Baton Rouge District Attorney’s Office to prosecute the case because the local DA and the state Attorney General were involved in related civil suits.
The Canadian National Railway purchased and took over Illinois Central Gulf in the 1990s.
Though the derailment site is plugging the wells and shuttering the monitoring station, the incident will have a lasting impression on not just the town, but all of Louisiana.
“I believe it to be the catalyst to where we are today in chemical response,” said State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson, whose agency is in charge of all hazmat emergencies.
Edmonson had been a trooper for all of 21 months when the spill occurred and was placed in front of reporters to give updates on the response.
“We had all the media in the world out there,” he recalled.
Many first responders realized they couldn’t decipher the chemical warning symbols on the tanker cars, so they didn’t know which fires to spray with water, what to spray with foam and what to let burn out.
After the derailment, State Police put protocols in place to teach crews how to determine the safest way to dispose of chemicals, how to determine when to evacuate an area and how to improve communication with the public and between agencies, Edmonson said.
“We really didn’t know. ... All (the procedures) came out of that Livingston train derailment,” he said. “A lot of welcome knowledge came out of the whole response.”
Droy, the toxicologist, said it was a “clear rallying point” for state environmental regulators to receive more specialized training. Doran, the environmental scientist, said it “had a huge impact” on federal efforts to raise standards for hazmat professionals.
Once the decontamination site is officially closed, Jones hopes to hold a ceremony for all the first responders, scientists, officials and residents to get together, and remember the derailment as they put it behind them.
“It’s probably the biggest story to ever come out of the town of Livingston,” the mayor said.
Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.