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PLASTER ROCK, New Brunswick — Officials with Canadian National Railway say they don’t know when people evacuated Tuesday evening after a train derailment near the community can return to their homes.
During a Wednesday news conference held at the village’s Tobiqueplex facility, Claude Mongeau, president and CEO of CN Rail, wouldn’t say when people could return to their homes.
Between 150 and 200 people had to leave about 50 homes on Tuesday night.
Once a tactical plan is completed, he said, officials will have a better idea when they can go home.
Mongeau said there is still a fire at the scene but it’s a controlled burn and represents no danger.
Because of the controlled nature of the burn, there’s no chance of an explosion, he said.
“My first word is to apologize to residents of Plaster Rock for the inconvenience,” he said. “The fire is our first priority at the moment.”
The CN freight train was carrying crude oil from Western Canada, destined for the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John. It derailed Tuesday just before 7 p.m. near Longley Road in Wapske, north of Plaster Rock.
Plaster Rock is about 35 miles east of Caribou.
The train had 122 cars, 17 of which left the rail. Five had crude while the others were carrying butane and propane.
Longley Road resident Andrew Simpson said he was playing cards with friends at his home when his table suddenly rumbled.
“The window went orange,” he said. “The whole lumber yard was on fire.”
Simpson said he called 911 and quickly alerted family members.
“The lumber was mainly on fire, one tanker.”
A sawmill is located near the derailment site.
Simpson, who was evacuated along with other family members, said he’s still waiting to hear when they can go back home.
As many as 12 fire departments, including those from Perth-Andover, Woodstock, Edmundston, Grand Falls and Fredericton assisted the Plaster Rock and District Fire Department at the scene.
A roadblock set up several kilometers from the derailment prevented people from getting closer. All unnecessary traffic was kept a few kilometers away.
The highway between Wapske and Plaster Rock was closed.
When asked about the cause of the accident and the possibility it might be connected to a brake malfunction, Mongeau said it was too early to say and that a full investigation was underway.
Premier David Alward praised responders for their quick efforts.
“The work on the ground has been outstanding,” Alward said. “I am thankful no one was hurt.’’
The premier said any effect on the environment appears to be minimal, but cautioned it was still early in the process.
Greg MacCullum, director of the New Brunswick Emergency Measures Organization, advised people to remain clear of the affected area for their own safety.
He said a health advisory has been issued with regard to the smoke and how it’s affecting air quality.
RCMP and members of the Plaster Rock Fire Department were on the scene in a matter of minutes following the accident. The Drummond fire department was called in to provide mutual assistance.
Members of a hazardous materials team from Edmundston also responded.
At one point, there was talk of evacuating a portion of Plaster Rock as well, as thick, black smoke could be seen billowing from the accident scene.
Two crew members on the train were uninjured.
Plaster Rock is a little more than 200 kilometers — a little less than 125 miles — northwest of Fredericton.
The accident attracted the attention of media from both sides of the border. At times the Tobiqueplex facility Wednesday was overflowing with media.
The premier also took some time to chat with workers gathered, offering them encouragement.
The safety of trains carrying dangerous goods has been in the news since last summer’s crash of a crude oil train in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people.
Officials in dozens of towns and cities where oil trains travel through say they’re concerned with the possibility of a major derailment, spill or explosion.
But their level of preparation varies widely.
An Associated Press report in December said the number of carloads hauled by U.S.-railroad traffic has surged in recent years, from 10,840 in 2009 to a projected 400,000 in 2013.
According to the Rail Association of Canada, which represents some 50 goods, tourist, commuter and intercity rail businesses in Canada, transportation of goods by rail is safe.
“Despite heavy media coverage of derailments, Canada’s rail system has a particularly good record for transporting the chemicals and petroleum products that are essential to our quality of life — from purifying the water we drink, to the fuels we use to heat our homes and operate our vehicles dangerous goods,” the group said on its website.
“Millions of carloads of dangerous goods move by rail every year and over 99.9 percent of them are delivered without incident.”