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Town evacuates after Minnesota train carrying ethanol derails, catches fire

BNSF said about 22 cars carrying mixed freight derailed, and four cars caught fire

A train carrying ethanol derailed and sparked a fire in Raymond, Minn., on March 30. (Video: KSTP/AP)
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A train carrying ethanol derailed and sparked a fire Thursday in a small Minnesota town, prompting a federal investigation and an hours-long evacuation, although no one was injured.

People within a half-mile of the incident in Raymond, Minn., were told to leave after emergency responders found that cars on a BNSF Railway train had derailed on the edge of the city and caught fire, the Kandiyohi County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement. The evacuation order was lifted shortly before noon local time.

BNSF said about 22 rail cars carrying mixed freight, including ethanol and corn syrup, derailed at 1:02 a.m. local time Thursday. Four rail cars carrying ethanol caught fire, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. There were no other hazardous materials on the train, the company said.

“BNSF personnel are responding to assess the derailment site and will be working closely with local first responders,” company spokesperson Lena Kent said in a statement.

The derailment is the latest in a series of rail incidents since Feb. 3, when a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, bursting into flames and spilling a flammable gas. Chemical and environmental health experts said the incident in Minnesota is much less worrisome than the Norfolk Southern derailment, which left the Ohio town contending with a toxic chemical scare.

Derailments aren’t uncommon, but hazmat spills are rare. Here’s what we know.

“You think of ethanol, and, basically, it’s concentrated vodka. There’s not a lot of ill effects from air pollution — it burns very clean,” said Matt Simcik, a professor of environmental health at the University of Minnesota.

Simcik said Minnesota has experienced train derailments in which ethanol leaked from tankers and was ultimately consumed by soil microbes, which broke it down and turned it into methane. This is still not ideal, he said, as methane is a potent greenhouse gas with a climate-warming power more than 80 times that of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years. Methane gas also poses an explosion hazard at high concentrations, but at lower levels, it is not an immediate danger to people living near the spill site, he said.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said Federal Railroad Administration officials were at the site Thursday morning. The National Transportation Safety Board said investigators were to arrive in the afternoon.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz (D) visited the site hours after the derailment occurred to survey the damage and meet with local officials while offering state support.

“Our multi-agency emergency response will continue working on the ground to protect the health and safety of Raymond,” he tweeted after the visit.

The Minnesota derailment came after two trains carrying hazardous materials derailed earlier this week. A Canadian Pacific train with liquid asphalt and ethylene glycol derailed in rural North Dakota late Sunday, officials said. On Monday, a Union Pacific train carrying iron ore derailed in rural Southern California but brought no threat to the public or the environment, authorities said.

The recent spills and derailments have spurred questions about the safety of transporting toxic chemicals over long distances and through American towns, although federal data shows the number of chemical leaks while trains are in transit is declining. Hazardous materials were released in about 10 train incidents nationwide last year. In the past decade, releases of hazardous materials peaked at 20 in both 2018 and 2020.

About 1,000 derailments occur each year across the country, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Many of them are relatively minor, such as mishaps in rail yards. The number of trains coming off their rails has been on a decline, coinciding with a reduction in miles covered by the industry. There were 1,049 such instances in 2022 out of roughly 535 million miles traveled. In 2013, there were 1,311 derailments out of 748 million miles traveled.

In Raymond, the sheriff’s office said before noon Thursday that residents could “return safely to their homes,” warning that road detours remain near the site. Officials said that the incident didn’t affect groundwater and that the railroad and local responders remained to mitigate the incident.

The EPA sent officials Thursday to provide air monitoring at the site and in nearby communities. It said the four cars containing ethanol ruptured caught fire and continued to burn.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency also has an emergency team on the ground to help assess environmental effects. The state Department of Public Safety said it hadn’t received requests to deploy hazmat teams, but a state fire service specialist is providing aid to local responders.

The NTSB said its investigators will examine the track and equipment while studying the integrity of the tank cars that derailed and ruptured. Investigators also will review video footage from the train.

“The focus of the investigation will be to determine what happened, why it happened, and what actions need to be taken to prevent [it] from happening again,” NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway wrote in an email.

In a typical investigation, the NTSB interviews crew members, other railroad workers and witnesses while reviewing a railroad’s records, including those related to testing, inspections, maintenance and employee training. Investigators review the train’s black box data and crew communications, including the actions of railroad dispatchers.

See how the railroad industry has changed, in 6 charts

Residents of Raymond, which has a population of about 800, were evacuated to the nearby town of Prinsburg before being allowed to return home midday.

Officials said the main track remained blocked and it is not clear when it might reopen. Investigators haven’t determined what caused the derailment, which occurred about 100 miles west of Minneapolis. No passenger rail service was affected.

Ethanol is extremely flammable and combustible. Large volumes of ethanol are commonly shipped by train, with several spills in recent years. Some have resulted in significant fires, most of which have been allowed to burn, with water used in some cases to protect nearby structures or tanks.

Exposure to ethanol during spills can occur by inhalation, contact with the skin or ingestion if ethanol reaches water supplies, according to multiple reports that states have commissioned after previous derailments. It can result in headaches, as well as eye and respiratory system irritation. Chronic exposure to ethanol is unlikely as a result of a spill because of its rapid biodegradation and monitoring associated with a spill incident, the state reports say.

“The overall symptoms could range from irrigation of the eye, the skin, the nose, headaches, drowsiness, cough,” said Mary Prunicki, of the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research at Stanford University. “It could get as bad as liver damage, but that really depends on the length and amount of exposure.”

Ethanol production is concentrated in the Midwest, where most of the corn that goes into its production is grown. Railroads transport the flammable liquid in 30,000-gallon tank cars, generally from the Midwest to the East Coast, California and Texas, according to the Association of American Railroads. In 2018, the association said 377,000 carloads of ethanol were transported, accounting for about 1.2 percent of all domestic cargo.

Three weeks after a derailed train spilled toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, residents still wonder if their homes are contaminated. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)