PRINSBURG, Minn. -- 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 west of Minneapolis. That prompted the evacuation of essentially all of the town's 250 homes because they were within 1/2 mile 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, Minn.
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.
Information for this article was contributed by Steve Karnowski and Heather Hollingsworth of The Associated Press.