Minnesota train derailment, ethanol fire renew safety fears
PRINSBURG, Minn. (AP) — Hundreds of people had to evacuate their Minnesota town after a train hauling ethanol and corn syrup derailed and caught fire early Thursday, but authorities were hopeful that the quick response and cold weather would help limit the impact of this latest crash.
Still, those pushing to improve rail safety said the derailment only added urgency to the debate over reforms that Congress and regulators are considering, even as officials seemed to apply some of the lessons learned after last month's fiery derailment near East Palestine, Ohio.
Minnesota officials said the BNSF train derailed around 1 a.m. in Raymond, roughly 100 miles (161 kilometers) west of Minneapolis. That prompted the evacuation of essentially all of the town's 250 homes because they were within 1/2 mile (0.8 kilometers) of the derailment. The evacuation order was lifted around noon.
The nation has been increasingly focused on railroad safety since the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern derailment that prompted several thousand evacuations in and around East Palestine near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. Residents in that town of about 5,000 remain concerned about lingering health impacts after officials decided to release and burn toxic chemicals to prevent a tank car explosion. State and federal officials maintain that no harmful levels of toxic chemicals have been found in the air or water, but residents remain uneasy.
The major freight railroads have said they plan to add about 1,000 more trackside detectors nationwide to help spot equipment problems, but federal regulators and members of Congress have proposed additional reforms they want the railroads to make. A group of Ohio Representatives said at a news conference Thursday about their rail safety legislation that the Minnesota derailment reinforces the need for reform.
While state and federal agencies were quick to respond to the Ohio derailment, Norfolk Southern's CEO and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg were slow to visit the town, and President Joe Biden has yet to survey the damage himself. The railroad even skipped one of the first community meetings because of fears about the safety of its employees. Contrast that with Thursday's response when BNSF CEO Katie Farmer showed up on day one to apologize and promise a thorough cleanup, and Buttigieg jumped on CNN within hours.
“We will have our team here until this is cleaned up,” Farmer said at a news conference with Gov. Tim Walz and other Minnesota officials.
Walz said the response from Burlington Northern was "unprecedented, in my opinion” with the railroad getting in touch with state and local officials before 6 a.m.
BNSF officials said 22 cars derailed, including about 10 carrying ethanol, and the track remained blocked, but no injuries were reported. The cause hasn't been determined, but EPA officials said on Twitter that four ethanol cars ruptured and the flammable fuel additive caught fire.
ADM confirmed that the ethanol came from its corn processing facility in Marshall, Minnesota.
Evacuees went to nearby Prinsburg — first to a school and a church where volunteers prepared food and distributed donated bottled water. Emergency responders retrieved three dogs from homes in Raymond in the morning and brought them to the church shelter.
Darwin and Sharon Heida, both 81, said they received an evacuation alert on Darwin’s cell phone around 2:30 a.m. at their home about three blocks away from the train tracks.
Darwin, who is a former volunteer firefighter for over 20 years, said the evacuation was “very orderly” and emergency personnel went door-to-door to relay the message. But it was unnerving to see flames above the tree line as they left home.
“It happens in other places but not in our backyard,” Sharon said.
Lawmakers pushing for railroad safety improvements say statistics show too many communities are dealing with these issues.
“Three derailments per day on average. That’s way too many," Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson of Ohio said. "When is the next one going to occur, and what is the next village or township or community in American that is going to have to be evacuated?”
Walz and railroad officials said they aren't especially concerned about groundwater contamination from the latest derailment because much of the ethanol will burn off and the ground remains frozen. Plus, the U.S. Energy Information Administration says pure ethanol is biodegradable and breaks down into harmless substances if spilled.
Environmental Protection Agency officials from the same regional office that responded to the Ohio derailment arrived on site and started monitoring the air for toxic chemicals by 6:30 a.m. Thursday.
The Federal Railroad Administration, the Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board also responded to the derailment, and the NTSB said a team would conduct a safety investigation.
It doesn't appear likely that this BNSF train would have been covered by the additional safety regulations for high-hazardous flammable trains, because those rules only apply when a train has either a block of 20 flammable liquid cars or more than 35 total. Those rules, which also require notice to states, were developed after a string of fiery oil and ethanol derailments a decade ago.
Officials said the tank cars in Thursday's derailment were the upgraded triple-hulled DOT-117 cars required by those 2015 rules, designed to better contain the chemicals in an accident. The railroad said ethanol was the only hazardous material aboard.
Since 2015 nearly 48,000 such cars have been built and some 41,000 older ones have been upgraded to meet the new standards ahead of a 2029 deadline set by Congress. But another 35,000 older tank cars still need to be replaced or upgraded.
Buttigieg suggested speeding up those upgrades to complete them by 2025 after the Ohio derailment, but the Railway Supply Institute, which represents all the big tank car manufacturers that actually own most of the nation's tank cars, says that's not technically possible because of current labor and supply chain limits.
Earlier this month another BNSF train derailed in Washington and spilled 3,100 gallons (about 11,700 liters) of diesel near the Swinomish Channel on that tribe’s reservation after a safety device meant to keep a train from crossing onto an open swinging bridge malfunctioned.
The Association of American Railroads trade group likes to tout that 99.9% of all hazardous materials shipments that railroads haul reach their destinations safely and only 11 train accidents the Federal Railroad Administration recorded last year involved hazardous chemicals being released.
The government data shows that derailments have declined in recent years and most don't cause significant damage, but there were still 1,049 last year. This Minnesota and Ohio derailments demonstrate how even a single crash involving hazardous materials can be disastrous.
Hazardous materials, including about two-thirds of all the ethanol produced nationwide, account for about 7% to 8% of the 30 million shipments that railroads deliver across the country every year.
Railroad unions believe the industry is getting riskier after the major railroads eliminated nearly one-third of jobs in recent years, because employees are spread thin, inspections are rushed and preventative maintenance may be neglected.
BNSF, which is based in Fort Worth, Texas, is owned by Warren Buffett's Omaha, Nebraska-based Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate.
Funk reported from Omaha, Nebraska. Steve Karnowski contributed from Minneapolis, and Heather Hollingsworth contributed from Mission, Kansas.