Photo by Walt Kelly

Trains collide, derail, leak


(12/21/2008)

by Sarah Squires

At about 5:30 a.m. on Wednesday morning, two Canadian-Pacific Rail freight trains collided on the tracks between I-90 and the Mississippi River near the Dresbach exit.

The smaller train, which included 15 cars and two locomotives, broadsided the larger, which included 93 cars and three locomotives. The impact derailed 26 cars, 13 from each train. It sent one locomotive into the river, partially submerged, while two cars carrying between 20,000 and 25,000 gallons of a liquid nitrogen fertilizer mixture dangled above the river off the embankment.

Overnight, those two dangling railcars slid down the embankment and began leaking the liquid nitrogen fertilizer product into the river. Officials estimate that one car lost about half its load, the other about 75 percent, or a potential total of 31,000 gallons. The locomotive also leaked diesel fuel into the river, a substance that’s easier to collect and skim out of the water.

Two engineers were hospitalized immediately after the collision as a precaution. No one else was injured.

The tracks are cleared and crews are working to clean up the thousands of gallons of fertilizer spilled into the Mississippi River after a train collision Wednesday morning.

“I think it’s still a little bit early to really know the magnitude,” said Mike Schommer, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The crash left 26 cars derailed, one locomotive “wheels deep” in the river leaking diesel fuel, and two cars leaking a dangerous liquid nitrogen fertilizer mixture into the river. A third car is also leaking the nitrogen fertilizer, but contained in a ditch away from the river’s edge.

The DNR, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and workers from Canadian-Pacific have formed crews to clean up the toxic chemicals, as well as testing water quality and searching for fish potentially killed by the chemical spill. Mike LoVecchio, spokesperson for Canadian Pacific, said Friday that the environmental team has found “no evidence of fish kill” downstream, confirmed by Cathy Rofshus from the MPCA.

The environmental team has set up eight sampling stations, as well, to test for water quality and contamination, with the results expected to take up to 48 hours. One monitoring station has been installed upstream to gather baseline data, two adjacent to the site, four monitoring stations about 400 feet from the crash scene, and one about a mile downstream.

Crews worked to clear the tracks, and a large crane was expected to arrive on Friday to help fish the locomotive from the river. Freight cars carrying the liquid nitrogen fertilizer mix are also in the process of being emptied to prevent further leaks, and make them easier to move.

To clean up the diesel fuel, crews are using a catch basin that harnesses the river’s current to recover fuel that’s leaked from the locomotive, and then skim any remaining fuel from the top.

LoVecchio said that Canadian Pacific is doing its own investigation into the crash, along with the Federal Railroad Administration. No word on how long they may take, with LoVecchio saying that the investigation will take as long as it takes.

The investigation might reveal why the two freight trains crashed. LoVecchio said that the smaller train was traveling on what is known as a “siding,” which works as a sort of passing lane along the side of the tracks. Whether the smaller train jumped the tracks and broadsided the larger train, said LoVecchio, gets to the heart of what the investigation will be asking.

LoVecchio did say that normal protocol for coordinating train activity to avoid this kind of accident includes radio communication between trains, and signal switches that act like stoplights. Additionally, those signals are wired into the company’s network management system centers in both Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and in Minneapolis.

LoVecchio said it wasn’t yet clear exactly what kind of ride the two engineers in the smaller locomotive went on, as the locomotive derailed and slid down the embankment to the river during the initial crash. The two were unharmed, and LoVecchio said that when first responders arrived, the workers were on the riverbank, possibly indicating that they rode the locomotive all the way down the slope and into the river.

Now, as crews work through the winter weather alongside the chemical spill and the steep slope, LoVecchio said that safety for cleanup workers is the top priority.

When asked whether something could have prevented the two freight cars from sliding down the slope to the river, LoVecchio declined to speculate. “Obviously, it’s a very challenging site,” he said. “There’s very little leeway between the tracks and the river. As a consequence of the slip that both those cars made, we’ve reinforced the safety briefing for everybody working at the site.”

Canadian Pacific is financially responsible for the cleanup efforts, said LaVecchio. He said that the locomotive may be removed from the river over the weekend; but there is no word on how long it may take to get the leaking freight cars out.

Potential environmental impacts

While crews work to vacuum diesel fuel from the river and empty the liquid nitrogen fertilizer mix from the leaking tanks, officials say it’s too soon to tell how effective cleanup efforts might be.

“[The damage] is so hard to say because each spill is so different,” said Rofshus of the spills.

The fertilizer was a mixture containing 28 percent liquid nitrogen and a combination of ammonium nitrate and water.

The liquid nitrogen can have a damaging effect on aquatic wildlife, said environmental scientist Elizabeth Vashro of Washington D.C. based engineering-environmental Management.

“Increased nutrients like liquid nitrogen from fertilizers can cause eutrophication in rivers,” said Vashro. Eutrophication, she said, is a process which promotes excessive plant growth and decay, and can cause things like interference with drinking water, increased water turbidity, depletion of dissolved oxygen and fish mortality.

Eutrophication is also linked to the “dead zone,” an area in the Gulf of Mexico which lacks enough oxygen to support most marine life. The U.S. Geological Survey and National Wetlands Research Center issued a study on this dead zone in 2000 which called the effects of eutrophication in this area “one of the largest environmental issues of the decade.”

This dead zone, affecting about 6,000-7,000 square miles of gulf waters, is caused by “increased nutrients from the Mississippi River, especially nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers, animal wastes and domestic sewage,” reads the report. Additionally, commercial fertilizers like the substance spilled this week have been recognized as the largest source of the increase in nitrogen and nitrates within the area, which have doubled since 1950.

 

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