Evacuations end after fiery Minnesota ethanol derailment
By JOSH FUNK and TRISHA AHMED
PRINSBURG, Minn. (AP) — Hundreds of people had to evacuate their Minnesota hometown after a train hauling ethanol and corn syrup derailed and caught fire early Thursday, but authorities are hopeful that the quick response and cold weather will help limit the impact of this latest crash.
Still, those pushing to improve rail safety said Thursday’s derailment only adds urgency to the debate over reforms 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. Thursday in the town of 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 there, 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 to prevent future derailments. 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 to discuss the derailment.
“We will have our team here until this is cleaned up,” Farmer said at a news conference with Gov. Tim Walz and an assortment of other Minnesota officials.
Walz said “the response from Burlington Northern has been 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 remains blocked, but that no injuries were reported due to the accident. The cause of the derailment hasn’t been determined. EPA officials said on Twitter that four ethanol cars ruptured and the flammable fuel additive caught fire in the derailment. They continued to burn Thursday hours after the derailment.
ADM confirmed that the ethanol came from its corn processing facility in Marshall, Minnesota.
Photos and live video from the scene show a pile of crumpled train cars surrounded by snow with several tank cars still burning. Trucks line the roads on either side of the derailment bringing in hazardous materials experts and heavy equipment for the cleanup.
The people who had to evacuate went to nearby Prinsburg — first to a school and then to a church where volunteers prepared food for them and distributed donated bottled water.
Darwin and Sharon Heida, both 81, said they received an evacuation alert on Darwin’s cell phone around 2:30am. at their home about three blocks away from the train tracks.
Darwin Heida, who is a former volunteer firefighter for over 20 years, said the evacuation was “very orderly” and that emergency personnel went door-to-door to relay the message. But it was unnerving to see flames above the tree line as they left their home.
“It happens in other places but not in our backyard,” Sharon said. “It’s always been some place else” until today, Darwin added
Walz and railroad officials said they aren’t especially concerned about groundwater contamination from this 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 if spilled breaks down into harmless substances.
“What you see right now is cars on top of each other, they’re burning, and it’s a scary situation. … You see the tanker car burning, your first thought is that that’s a big bomb waiting to explode on that. I hope you know that the safeguards that were put in place … is to make sure they don’t explode,” Walz said. “And they are punctured, they are leaking. The good news probably is with the relatively frozen ground, that the ethanol will burn off.”
Environmental Protection Agency officials from the same regional office that responded to the Ohio derailment arrived on site and started monitoring the air around the derailment 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 are all responding to the derailment, and the NTSB said a team will conduct a safety investigation into the derailment.
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 flammable liquid cars on the train. Those rules that require additional safety measures and notice to states were developed after a string of fiery crude oil and ethanol derailments a decade ago.
But officials said the tank cars involved in Thursday’s derailment were the upgraded triple-hulled DOT-117 cars required by those 2015 rules that are designed to better contain the chemicals in an accident. The railroad said ethanol was the only hazardous material aboard the train.
Earlier this month, another BNSF train derailed in Washington and spilled 3,100 gallons of diesel fuel 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 safety, but this Minnesota derailment and the one in Ohio demonstrate how even a single crash involving hazardous materials can be disastrous. Railroads say that safety has generally been improving over the years, but there were still more than 1,000 derailments last year, according to Federal Railroad Administration data.
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.
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.