Arizona had more high-profile hazmat spills than other states

Arizona has had 3 high-profile hazardous spills in the past few years, including two train derailments and a semi-truck crash.
Published: Feb. 16, 2023 at 7:40 PM MST|Updated: Feb. 16, 2023 at 8:34 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) -- Nitric acid leaked from a truck after a crash Tuesday, which closed the I-10 near Tucson and forced people to evacuate. People have since returned to their homes. But this is not the first high-profile hazmat spill we’ve had recently in Arizona. In fact, experts say we see more here than in other states. So, is there a fix?

There have been three separate high-profile hazmat accidents that have happened in Arizona in less than three years. All three made national headlines and put people at risk. A longtime environmentalist said some solutions could help, but agencies’ response is often reactive instead of proactive.

Arizona lawmaker Justine Wadsack called for a state of emergency Thursday after the nitric acid truck spill on the I-10 caused a public health concern.

But is this incident isolated? “We are a major transportation route for all these chemicals. It’s a recipe for disasters,” said longtime environmentalist Steve Brittle. Brittle heads up the nonprofit ‘Don’t Waste Arizona.’

Unfortunately, this is part of a string of high-profile hazardous spills here. In July 2020, a Union Pacific train derailment crash caused several hazardous materials to spill. In February of last year, a derailment in Coolidge prompted emergency crews to rush to contain a spill of a dangerous chemical called cyclohexanone. And this week, the nitric acid spill near Tucson.

The derailment happened when a westbound Union Pacific railroad freight train was traveling over Tempe Town Lake just after 6 a.m. on July 29, 2020.

Brittle said the reality is hazardous materials are hauled through our state often, including as a destination for major industries here. He said companies will often pay millions on the back end after an incident happens for repairs. Still, he said there should be consideration to limiting human risk proactively, especially on our state freeways. “Maybe they should make certain routes inaccessible for hazmat traffic,” said Brittle. “Or designate certain lanes at certain times of the day so that we don’t have the heightened risk.”

Brittle believes this becomes even more important in metropolitan areas like Phoenix, especially due to how our highways are built and designed. “Our highways are like canyons, and all this stuff would just pool and then flowing along that, all these people would be stuck on the highway, and here comes a pool of, let’s say, chlorine gas,” Brittle said.

While the CDC says nitric acid exposure can cause a slew of health complications, Gov. Hobbs has not called a state of emergency even though a lawmaker is calling on her to do so. Pima County’s health department and poison control center have recommended anybody who may have been in contact with the gas near Tucson for more than 15 minutes get a medical evaluation if they start to have respiratory issues.

So far, no major medical issues have been reported. Any changes to hazardous spill procedures would likely come from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.