Railroad tracks and rail beds adjacent to marshland habitat were "heavily oiled" as part of Monday's 12,000-gallon railroad oil spill, and a small amount entered one trout stream, according to state officials. The tank car that leaked 12,000 gallons of oil along Canadian Pacific Railway (CP) tracks north of Winona on Monday was parked for 45 minutes near Weaver Bottoms, during which time it leaked an unknown amount of oil. "The tracks are heavily oiled through that stretch," but there are no areas of pooling oil, said Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Emergency Responder Dave Morrison.
Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Winona District Manager Mary Stefanski said there was no evidence of contamination in the Mississippi River and the Upper Mississippi Wildlife Refuge (UWMR) appears to be unaffected. The refuge's Weaver Bottoms is famed as a migratory pitstop for thousands of tundra swans every fall and is home to migrating pelicans and other wildlife.
CP and MPCA officials said they could not estimate the amount that spilled in the area. Morrison explained that the oil leaked from a valve near the bottom of the tank car. He compared the intermittent flow of oil from the tank car to the gurgling of an upside down pop bottle. "When it's moving down the rail, it's going to be jostled and its going to burp," he said. Because there would not be anything to "burp" the tank car while it was parked, it is possible that less oil leaked during the 45-minute stop to change train crews than might be expected, he added. Nevertheless, Morrison described the tracks in the area as coated with oil.
As the train was traveling north of Weaver, a small amount of oil did splatter into Snake Creek, an official trout stream, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). Officials could not confirm whether other trout streams that cross the rail lines were affected. Stefanksi said that the spill was primarily contained to the tracks and rail bed but that the Whitewater River and most stream crossings were splattered with small amounts of oil.
When asked if that splatter was significant, MPCA Emergency Responder Dave Morrison said, "It's hard to say, because oil will naturally break down in the environment, and the amount of spray is not enough that it won't break down. But the problem is it spilled in winter, essentially all of the biological activity [has stopped]."
Morrison continued, "If you sprayed this amount of oil across a farm field, it would break down, there would be no traceable amount." However, the oil spilled along the rail bed is a little more problematic because, "on the first warm day the oil is essentially going to run off," he explained.
CP has conducted a clean-up in the city of Winona — the southbound train leaked from around Red Wing to Homer. While Morrison reported that some oil-soaked snow has been scooped up, no formal clean-up was in the works as of last Friday afternoon.
Morrison said that CP must provide a plan for monitoring the spill and for possible clean-up. He declined to discuss exactly what methods might be used if a clean up is mandated, saying the agency knows of strategies, but "we want that to come from them." He explained that the winter conditions would make it more challenging and that "it's not as simple as an excavation or a scrape up."
CP spokesman Ed Greenberg said that the railway is working closely with its environmental experts and the MPCA to evaluate the Weaver area and the rest of the spill area and determine whether a formal clean-up procedure is needed.
FWS officials learned of the heavier leaking at Weaver Bottoms on Tuesday. Morrison said the MPCA knew of the train's layover on Monday and that Weaver was immediately an area of special concern. The more concentrated spill there and the 45-minute stop was first reported to local media by citizens.