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Derailment ignites calls for safer rail cars

ST. PAUL — Authorities began to clean up after a northeastern Iowa ethanol train derailment Thursday morning, at about the same time that rail safety advocates renewed calls to get rid of old, less safe rail tank cars that commonly carry crude oil through Minnesota and North Dakota.

Canadian Pacific workers began draining ethanol from 14 derailed tank cars along the Mississippi River near Dubuque Thursday and set up water monitoring equipment downstream, The Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette reported. Three of the train’s 81 cars caught fire.

The Dubuque Telegraph Herald reported three cars fell into the river.

The southeast-bound train that derailed at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday included some older tank cars, known as DOT-111s, that are more prone to rupture than new thicker-skinned cars.

While the federal government is trying to switch railroads over to the safer cars, Minnesota and North Dakota leaders also have examined rail safety.

“Train derailments are almost becoming a part of everyday life, and it is unacceptable,” Minnesota state Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, said. “Many of these trains travel through our state, and Minnesotans should not have to worry about the possibility of them derailing and possibly exploding. We are lucky this didn’t happen in an area like Moorhead, New Hope, Red Wing or any community with a rail line.”

Most of the discussion has been about oil coming from western North Dakota, oil that federal officials say contains more flammable gases than other oil.

Canadian Pacific imposes a $325-per-car surcharge on shippers who use old cars in an effort to get them to use safer ones. Railroad officials say they cannot refuse to haul oil and other liquids in the older cars. Shippers provide nearly all the cars used by railroads.

The Minnesota Public Safety Department recently released a report indicating that the state’s first responders do not feel adequately trained to deal with derailments of trains with hazardous materials such as crude oil and ethanol.

“Derailments like these make it clear the federal government needs tougher standards to prevent these accidents near populated areas,” Minnesota Senate Transportation Chairman Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, said. “We must immediately begin to phase out and ban the substandard and dangerous DOT-111 train cars.”

Reuters news service reports that the U.S. ethanol industry has pushed back on proposed new rules requiring safer cars, saying regulators should distinguish between corn-based ethanol and crude oil. Ethanol is less volatile than crude oil, is biodegradable and has a 99.997 percent rail safety record, according to the national Renewable Fuels Association.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.