Acid Spill May Have Slight Environmental Impact

KNOXVILLE – As emergency workers continue cleaning up the sulfuric acid spilled in Sunday’s train derailment in West Knoxville, concerns grow about the environmental effects of the spill.

The head of the University of Tennessee civil and environmental engineering department said Monday if the cleanup is handled correctly, the environmental effects should be small.

“If this is just sulfuric acid and nothing else,” Dr. Greg Reed said, “when you react sulfuric acid with a strong base like lime, you get gypsum, which is a major ingredient in wallboard used in homes and businesses. This isn’t like a toxic metal or persistent poisonous compound because it can be effectively neutralized.”

Reed said once the source of the acid is sealed, hazardous-materials teams will turn to cleaning up the mess.

“They’ll probably have to dig up the soil in the area of the spill, because some of the acid will have soaked into the soil,” Reed said. “It really depends on how much acid was spilled, and whether the soil conditions were conducive to the acid moving around or staying confined to the area.”

The spill happened on a rail line near Fort Loudoun Lake between Knox and Blount counties. Reed said there’s no indication the acid got into the lake, but if it did, it could affect fish and other aquatic life.

“If it gets into the water, it will lower the pH balance,” Reed said, “and if that gets too low it could have an adverse effect on aquatic life, even to the point of death if it gets very low. One would have to know where the source of input is, because a direct acid spill into the lake would have a worse effect than runoff from contaminated soil.”

Thousands of nearby residents were evacuated Sunday, to protect them from potentially inhaling the sulfuric acid fumes from the spill.