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Small Kentucky town urged to evacuate after train derails, spilling chemicals

MOUNT VERNON, Ky. — A train derailed and spilled molten sulfur in a remote part of eastern Kentucky on Wednesday, prompting officials to encourage residents of a small town to evacuate amid concerns about air quality.

Gov. Andy Beshear said in a statement that local officials in Rockcastle County were encouraging residents of Livingston, with a population of about 200, to evacuate. News outlets reported that a shelter was opened at a local middle school.

The derailment involving 16 cars happened around 2:30 p.m., according to Bryan Tucker, a spokesperson for railroad operator CSX. Two of the derailed cars were carrying molten sulfur, which caught fire after the cars were breached.

“Specialized equipment has been deployed to conduct air monitoring in the area as molten sulfur is known to release sulfur dioxide when it burns,” CSX said Thursday in a statement. “Our immediate focus is on safely extinguishing the fire.” 

The fire that started as a result of the derailment is 50% contained, NBC affiliate WLEX of Lexington, Kentucky, reported.

The amount of sulfur dioxide released won’t be confirmed until measurements are taken from the air monitoring equipment, Tucker said.

Two other cars involved in the derailment were carrying magnesium hydroxide, but CSX said they were not breached. The remaining cars were either empty or carrying non-hazardous products like grain or plastic, according to the statement.

Sulfur dioxide can cause respiratory problems, depending on the concentration and length of exposure, the Environmental Protection Agency website said on its website. The gas is commonly produced by burning fossil fuels at power plants and other industrial processes, the EPA says.

John Mura, a spokesman for the state Energy and Environment Cabinet, said he didn’t have further information on the quantity of chemicals released.

WKYT-TV reported that one crew member was treated at the scene for minor injuries.

Beshear declared a state of emergency in the county.

“By issuing a state of emergency, we are ensuring that every state resource is available to help keep our families safe,” Beshear said.

He urged people to avoid the area to allow state and local officials to respond.

CSX said it is supplying food, lodging and other necessities to communities that have been affected by the spill. Residents are being hosted in two hotels in Mount Vernon, Kentucky. The company said it will cover the associated costs.

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