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Middlebury cleans up after rail spill

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By JOHN FLOWERS AND JOHN S. McCRIGHT

MIDDLEBURY — Public safety officials on Tuesday morning lifted the evacuation order for the area of downtown Middlebury that was shut down on Monday afternoon following the derailment of a train car carrying gasoline.

Four streets nearest the overturned tanker car remained closed: South Pleasant, Cross, Water and Charles streets. Middlebury Union High School and Mary Hogan Elementary School, which were closed and evacuated on Monday, were reopened Tuesday morning. The Gailer School and Mary Johnson Children’s Center, which are located on closed streets, remained closed on Tuesday.

Downtown Middlebury returned to its normal level of activity after being completely closed down on Monday.

Seventeen cars of a Vermont Railways train derailed on the tracks along the west side of the Otter Creek across the river from Mr. Ups restaurant at a little after 2 p.m. on Monday. The line of overturned cars stretched from the railroad trestle near Water Street to the point at which the tracks go under Merchants Row.

Officials said that 14 of the cars carried gasoline and the three at the north end were carrying road salt. Spillage of gasoline and salt was minimal, and a firefighters quickly extinguished a small fire.

“This could have been MUCH more catastrophic had there been explosion or major spillage,” Middlebury Town Planner Fred Dunnington said in a release Tuesday morning.

Only one rail car sustained any substantial loss of gasoline, officials said on Monday evening. Nevertheless, local firefighters and state hazardous materials teams set up booms in the Otter Creek just above the Middlebury Falls as a precaution.

Crews on Tuesday morning were offloading the fuel remaining in the cars, which were still lying on their sides. Empty tanker cars were en route to the site and expected around midday. Dunnington said that it would take some time to carefully transfer the fuel to tankers, a task made trickier by the fact that the overturned cars were at the bottom of a steep back beyond the west end of Cross Street. He pointed out that this transfer process was the same as what happens on a regular basis in the rail yards north of Greg’s Market.

He could not say when the cleanup would be finished. A crew of specialists were called from Pennsylvania to help clear the wreckage.

The fear of flammable fumes being ignited or causing sickness prompted police to close 30 streets in the center of Middlebury and evacuate homes and businesses in the area. No injuries were reported. Town officials on Tuesday morning said air quality on both sides of the river was being constantly monitored.

Several of the most heavily traveled thoroughfares where closed, including Route 7 through the village and the Battel Bridge. State and local police rerouted all but some emergency vehicles to alternate routes, some of which quickly clogged on Monday afternoon.

Most of the cars and trucks coming from south of downtown followed Weybridge Street and Pulp Mill Bridge Road to the Pulp Mill Bridge and back up Seymour Street to Elm Street and Route 7. The unusually large number of cars caused a backup from Route 7 at Elm Street back down Seymour to the Pulp Mill Bridge and up Pulp Mill Bridge Road almost to Weybridge Street at one point. Cars driving north on Route 7 south of town were diverted in East Middlebury onto Route 125 and directed to take Route 116 around the village, though some made their way back into town via Cady Road and Quarry Road. Drivers coming on Route 7 from the North were diverted at New Haven Junction onto Route 17 and directed onto Route 116 South.

Some parents had a surprise when they came to collect their children after school. Student from Mary Hogan Elementary School were relocated to the Salisbury Community School as a precaution and Middlebury Union High School was also evacuated. Both schools are within a half-mile of the spill.

Some buildings on the Middlebury College campus were also evacuated.

The Red Cross on Monday evening set up an emergency shelter at the American Legion for those displaced by the train derailment in Middlebury. Red Cross officials said they would continue to provide services as needed.

Many public safety agencies responded to the emergency, including reportedly nine fire departments, state police, state hazardous materials units, several rescue squads and Vermont Railway officials.

Officials on Tuesday morning were still investigating what caused the derailment. Some eyewitnesses said the train seemed to be running faster than usual, while other said it seemed to be going the normal speed.

A Middlebury Development Review Board hearing on proposed Starbucks and Staples projects that had been scheduled for Monday evening in downtown Middlebury was cancelled. Town officials have not yet rescheduled the hearing.

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