Derailments put oil train expansion in the crosshairs

A BNSF train of empty oil cars heads west at Sugar Grove, Ill., on Aug. 20, 2014. A loaded BNSF train on the same line derailed Thursday near Galena, Ill., about 160 miles west of Chicago
A BNSF train of empty oil cars heads west at Sugar Grove, Ill., on Aug. 20, 2014. A loaded BNSF train on the same line derailed Thursday near Galena, Ill., about 160 miles west of Chicago McClatchy

After a BNSF Railway oil train derailed and burst into flames Thursday near Galena, Ill., at least one community group has asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to suspend permits for rail expansions along the upper Mississippi River.

Of the 70 oil trains a week that leave North Dakota’s Bakken region for coastal refineries, more than half of them funnel through a roughly 400-mile stretch from Minnesota’s Twin Cities to the Quad Cities on the Illinois-Iowa border.

BNSF and Canadian Pacific haul both crude oil and ethanol on both sides of the Mississippi River, and the region has become a bottleneck. BNSF alone plans to spend more than $780 million in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois this year to add new track and improve signal systems.

Because the projects affect wetlands along the river, the railroads must seek permits under the federal Clean Water Act. And as elsewhere in the country, the permitting process has become a primary tool of community and environmental groups to slow or stop the growth of such rail shipments.

After Thursday’s derailment, Citizens Acting for Rail Safety, a group based in LaCrescent, Minn., sent a letter requesting that the corps’ St. Paul District hold off on approving any rail project permits until investigators determined the cause of the derailment and two others since early February.

On Feb. 16, a CSX oil train bound from North Dakota to Virginia derailed near Mount Carbon, W.Va., igniting a fire that burned for four days, destroyed one home and kept more than 100 residents away from theirs.

On Feb. 4, a Canadian Pacific train carrying ethanol derailed and caught fire on the Iowa side of the Mississippi north of Dubuque, spilling about 55,000 gallons.

In its letter, the citizens group called such events “a recipe for a major disaster involving many deaths, injuries and extreme environmental damage to the Mississippi River system.”

The upper Mississippi is one of North America’s richest ecosystems. According to the Nature Conservancy, it’s the migration path for 60 percent of the continent’s bird species and 40 percent of its waterfowl. It also supports 25 percent of North America’s fish species.

The BNSF train that derailed in Illinois Thursday had earlier passed through LaCrosse, Wis., where the railroad seeks to add four miles of track to relieve congestion for shipments of consumer goods, automobiles, grain, coal and oil.

Alan Stankevitz, a co-founder of the citizens group, said he’s concerned about the project’s impact on a wetland that’s home to the nesting Black Tern, an endangered species in Wisconsin, and that the construction site is near an active bald eagle nest.

Last month, the project received a permit from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and is waiting on a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. A corps spokesman in St. Paul, Minn., said he couldn’t comment on the permit’s status.

A spokesman for Canadian Pacific wouldn’t comment on efforts to block the permits. A spokesman for BNSF couldn’t be reached to comment.

Thursday’s derailment took place near the confluence of the Galena and Mississippi rivers, and Friday, officials had yet to determine if oil entered the water.

Officials said Friday that 21 cars of the 105-car train had derailed and that five continued to burn. The Federal Railroad Administration is leading the investigation.

Also Friday, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan announced a settlement over environmental damages from a June 2009 ethanol train derailment near Rockford.

A subsidiary of Canadian National Railway will pay $570,000 for cleanup costs. The derailment killed one person and contaminated several miles of a river and its tributaries.