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 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 remains blocked, but that 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 in the derailment.
ADM confirmed that the ethanol came from its corn processing facility in Marshall, Minnesota.
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. Emergency responders even rescued three dogs from homes in Raymond on Thursday morning and brought them to the church shelter because they weren’t sure how long the evacuations would last.
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.
But the lawmakers pushing for railroad safety improvements say the statistics show that 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 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.
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 all responded 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.
Since 2015, nearly 48,000 of those newer tank cars have been built and some 41,000 older tank cars have been upgraded to meet the new standards ahead of the 2029 deadline Congress set. 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 that 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 on their capacity.
Earlier this month, another BNSF train derailed in Washington and spilled 3,100 gallons (about 11,700 liters) 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 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 of them don’t cause significant damage, but there were still 1,049 of them last year. And this Minnesota derailment and the one in Ohio demonstrate how even a single crash involving hazardous materials can be disastrous.
Railroad unions have said they believe the industry is getting riskier after the major railroads eliminated nearly one-third of all the jobs in recent years because employees are spread thin, inspections are being rushed and preventative maintenance may be getting neglected.
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.