Four train cars that were carrying molten sulfur are among those that derailed near Lakeland, Fla., early Monday, prompting emergency officials to warn local residents to stay indoors and close their windows. Several cars are believed to have leaked.
"Approximately nine rail cars" derailed, rail operator CSX says of the incident; Polk County Fire Rescue says several cars were left "rolled over and mangled."
CSX says no injuries have been reported and that it's investigating the cause of the derailment.
A fire engine crew spotted the derailed cars discovered shortly before 2 a.m. ET, when their fire engine was returning from a medical call. Hazmat crews were called to the scene; they've been working with officials from CSX and state agencies to investigate.
The derailment occurred near a residential area along Kathleen Road, a divided four-lane highway that links suburban and rural neighborhoods to Lakeland. The train track runs parallel to the road — a portion of which is now closed.
"At this time there are no evacuations," the fire rescue agency says, adding that residents close to the area are being asked to shelter in place. They agency is telling them to turn off their air conditioning units.
CSX Spokesman Rob Doolittle describes molten sulfur as "a hazardous material used in making rubber, detergent and fertilizers."
For anyone wondering why the sulfur would be transported in a molten state — that question came up on the science site Cosmo Quest, where a forum member named Shaula wrote:
"If it is to be used solid it is transported solid, if it is to be used molten it is far more efficient to put it in a very well insulated car and move it molten. If it is being used to make sulphuric acid (80 percent of sulphur is used for this IIRC), for example, the first stage it to burn it. This is more easily done with molten sulphur as you can pass air through it."
Other members of that forum noted that sulfur has commonly been mined by using super-heated water to extract it in a molten state.
The CSX train had been traveling from Waycross, Ga., to Winston, Fla., Doolittle said. He added that it comprised three locomotives and nearly 200 rail cars — 120 loaded and 72 empty. In addition to molten sulfur, it was carrying items such as cardboard, oats and rock.
As the company investigates the cause, it's also working to clean up the scene and get the train's cars back on the tracks. Roads in the immediate area are expected to remain closed for hours.