A train carrying liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) through a Main Street overpass in Westford, Massachusetts derailed on Wednesday evening, but the company responsible did not notify public officials until Thursday afternoon, according to local media reports.
The derailment of five Pan Am Railways freight cars — two carrying LPG, or propane — in Westford was not made public until a local fire chief drove by and spotted the cars off their tracks. Though there was no spill reported, the Lowell Sun reported “a faint smell of gas in the air,” as well as concerns from public officials that the event could have caused a catastrophe.
“According to [Pan Am] this is not an emergency, as far as I know nothing’s leaking, ” Westford town manager Jodi Ross told local reporters on the scene. “Our concern is when they get these cars back on the track if they were to knock them over into our aquifer, or they leak in the densely populated area around here.”
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Ross also said she was “dismayed” over the fact that she wasn’t allowed to be near the scene of the derailment. After Ross was notified of incident by the local fire chief, she said, the manager presiding over the derailment called the police to get her away from the tracks.
Officials from Pan Am told the Lowell Sun that they were not required by law to notify town officials of the issue, “especially since it was not blocking traffic.”
“If there was a regulation saying we had to, or we needed to, we would have,” Pan Am Vice President Cynthia Scarano said. “If we thought there was any public problem, we would have gotten on the phone right away.”
The derailment in Westford, a town with a population of more than 20,000, was the second Pan Am derailment in the region this week, and the third freight train derailment in the region this week altogether. The derailment in Westford was the only one carrying hazardous materials.
Concerns about the safety of transporting hazardous materials by rail, including propane and crude oil, have ballooned in the last year, most infamously characterized by the deadly derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec this past summer. The derailment caused a 1.5 million gallon oil spill, and an explosion which killed 47 people. Federal regulators recently reported that more oil has spilled from rail cars in 2013 than in the last four decades combined, which is in line with how much the practice itself has increased.