Canadian Pacific crews have started the process of cleaning up a derailed freight train north of Dubuque, after having built a temporary, unpaved access road to bring equipment to the remote site.
Three railcars carrying ethanol caught fire and at least eight leaked their contents after 15 railcars and two locomotives of an 81-car train traveling to New Jersey derailed Wednesday along a stretch of track owned and operated by Canadian Pacific, according to company spokesman Andy Cummings. There were no injuries.
One of the railcars remained burning until about 8 a.m. Thursday. At least three cars plunged into the nearby Mississippi River.
All but one of the derailed railcars were carrying ethanol. The other derailed car was a “buffer” car, a railcar used to separate the locomotives from the ethanol-carrying railcars.
Canadian Pacific does not yet have an estimated monetary amount of damages.
Environmental impacts unknown
Iowa Department of Natural Resources spokesman Kevin Baskins said DNR officials are utilizing an airboat to analyze the impact of potential ethanol leakage into the Mississippi River.
DNR crews have struggled to get close to the site, due primarily to a lack of access from local roads.
“We are hoping, by early afternoon, we can make some kind of report as to what we have seen and what our assessment found,” Baskins said.
Baskins noted that, unlike petroleum, ethanol mixes with water. This could reduce the risk to cities located downstream, including Davenport, Burlington and Keokuk, all of which were notified Wednesday of the leak.
“Since ethanol mixes with water, it should dissipate quickly rather than floating downstream,” he said.
Any ethanol entering the river, however, could pose a serious threat to aquatic life.
“When ethanol mixes with water, it depletes the oxygen,” he said. “If there is a significant amount (of ethanol) in the river, we could see a fish kill or a threat to aquatic life.”
Canadian Pacific is setting up 40 individual monitoring stations downriver from the incident site, Cummings said. The monitoring will include checking for the presence of ethanol in the water, as well as the levels of dissolved oxygen.
Cummings said this monitoring is being done in close consultation with U.S. Fish & Wildlife and the Iowa DNR.
Canadian Pacific built a temporary access road to reach the derailment site and began the process of loading the contents of the derailed cars into empty railcars brought to the site.
All of the derailed railcars were DOT 111 models. The safety of such railcars has been questioned after they were involved in some high-profile derailments of oil trains, including one in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people.
Cummings said the derailed cars met all federal requirements for transportation of ethanol. He said Canadian Pacific has asked for “meaningful and immediate upgrades” to tank car safety standards.
“However, at this time, the DOT-111 complies with federal law, and as a common carrier railroad, we are required to handle ethanol in these cars,” he said.
The derailment occurred on a stretch of railroad owned and operated by Canadian Pacific. About six to eight trains per day typically travel on the stretch of line.
Canadian Pacific will find alternate routes for trains during the response to the Dubuque-area derailment.
“We have reroute capacity that is situational. We find other ways to move our customers’ goods,” Cummings said.
Canadian Pacific dispatched a command-post trailer to the site after the derailment. The trailer is based in Minneapolis and includes cables and other equipment necessary for a derailment response.
“It’s kind of a one-stop shop when we have an incident like this,” Cummings said.
Tom Berger, emergency management coordinator for Dubuque County, said local emergency responders could do little to address the ethanol fires that raged for hours after the derailment.
Today, the Sherrill Fire Department is maintaining a perimeter near the derailment site and is keeping emergency medical personnel on standby. However, any on-scene work is being coordinated by the railroad.
“They’ve been very good to work with as far as keeping us up to date and working back and forth,” Berger said.
Dubuque Fire Department’s hazardous-materials truck is serving as a command post for local emergency responders. The truck provides phone, radio and Internet services, as well as a warm refuge from the bitter cold.
“It’s a large, warm space that’s basically an office space for on-site personnel,” said Fire Chief Rick Steines.
Steines said the leaking, burning cars didn’t represent the biggest threat in the immediate aftermath of the derailment. The biggest concern was that the fires would heat ethanol cars that were still sealed, potentially creating an explosion hazard.
The explosion risk will continue into the clean-up process, according to Steines. Ethanol from the train cars likely has saturated the ground and tracks around the crash site.
“The biggest danger right now is when they go to start unloading these cars and when they start to transfer product” to different tankers, Steines said. “The fuel could still be laying in there giving off some vapors.”