The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

BNSF car emits toxic chemical


A train crew member was taken to Clovis' Plains Regional Medical Center on Monday afternoon after inhaling denatured alcohol mist seeping from a train stopped 10 miles west of Melrose.

BNSF railway personnel said the man has recovered and the incident posed no risk to the public due to the isolated region where the train stopped for repairs.

“The crew noticed what appeared to be a leak about 30 cars back from the engine; they stopped the train and went back to inspect it,” said BNSF spokeswoman Lena Kent. “I understand it was a mist coming from a valve on the car.”

Kent said the incident was reported to train dispatchers at 3:53 p.m. and the problem was successfully repaired before the train continued to its destination of Phoenix.

Denatured alcohol, a blend of ethyl alcohol with methyl alcohol or other chemicals added to make the alcohol undrinkable, has many industrial purposes. According to a hazardous materials response manual produced by the Federal Emergency Management Administration, denatured alcohol is highly flammable and because its vapors are heavier than air, they can collect in low-lying areas rather than dissipating into the atmosphere, potentially traveling long distances and igniting when the vapors come in contact with open flame or another ignition source.

New Mexico State Police Sgt. Wesley Waller said his office is categorizing the incident as an industrial accident.

“The top of the tanker has a fill spout. It’s fairly small, maybe six inches in diameter, and the lid had not been secured and that was the whole problem.” Waller said. “The victim had gone to investigate and that’s when he found the problem and at the same time had smelled the chemical, which caused him to become nauseated.”

Melrose Fire Chief Kenny Jacobs said the train was stopped on the tracks about two hours but didn’t impede any vehicle traffic.

“It was stopped out in the middle of nowhere,” Jacobs said. “With it just being alcohol, it was just a 200 foot radius clearance we had to establish (around the train), and that wasn’t difficult.”

Jacobs said his department called in special investigators from the state police to assist on the scene.

“We have training on different aspects of firefighting once a month and on stuff like this, but (hazardous material) is a speciality,” Jacobs said. “We don’t have that many people trained on this, so we call the state police and of course the train company has its own hazmat (hazardous material) people.”


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