A Canadian National Railway train derailment Friday about 40 miles northwest of International Falls reiterates the concerns local officials have voiced for several years about rail safety in the area.
Glen Murray, minister of Ontario Environment and Climate Change, said one of the derailed cars at Barwick, Ontario, is estimated to have spilled approximately 10,000 to 12,000 gallons of petroleum distillates. No injuries were reported. About 60 homes were evacuated Friday.
“At this time, the spill is not expected to threaten surface waters, including the Rainy River,” he said. “Containment booms have been put in place to keep the spill from migrating and a vacuum truck is on site to capture the liquid.”
The derailment prompted Murray to seek the help of his nation’s federal officials in making rail traffic safer.
“The transportation of dangerous goods, including oil, is the responsibility of the federal government,” said Murray in a statement. “We have repeatedly called on them to do more to improve rail safety and regulations to better protect our citizens, communities and the environment.”
The Ministry of the Environment has officials on site working closely with emergency responders and CN to make sure all impacts to the environment are assessed and minimized as much as possible, said Murray.
Meanwhile, Koochiching County Commissioner Wade Pavleck said the Barwick derailment “underscores what we’ve been saying for long time: People are at risk should there be a spill in our area.”
With the confirmation by CN that rail traffic through Borderland is increasing exponentially, Pavleck said the risk for accidents is also increasing.
And he said that’s one of the reasons the county is considering constructing alternate routes in and out of areas near the rail crossings.
On Tuesday, the Koochiching County Board gave county Engineer Joe Sutherland approval to get an appraisal for property needed to construct a road that would connect County Road 20 in Ranier to Highway 11 east.
That road is part of a larger plan that calls for construction of an alternate road that would connect County Road 24, known as the Van Lynn Road, with Highway 11 east.
On Monday, CN is expected to begin work on the County Road 20 crossing in Ranier, on Spruce Street. The crossing is expected to be closed to all traffic through the week, said a notice from the city of Ranier.
And while Pavleck said the closure of the crossing will wreak havoc on the city’s traffic, he said it’s necessary to improve the crossing and has been sought for some time for by Ranier and county officials and area residents.
Pavleck said the Barwick derailment also raises concerns about the safety of rail infrastructure, including tracks and bridges. The May derailment at Ericsburg caused by a fire on a wooden rail bridge is a good example of those concerns, he said. Since that derailment, CN has constructed a new, metal structure that will carry rail traffic over the Rat Root River.
A visit earlier this month by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who pledged to contact CN and other federal officials, is a step in the right direction, Pavleck said.
“She is in a key position to help us,” he said. “She can use her position and influence to muster things going forward for us... She seems very committed.”
Meanwhile, citations issued to CN are now under advisement of a judge, according to Koochiching County Attorney Jeff Naglosky.
In December, the county board threw it’s support behind Naglosky and then Sheriff Brian Jespersen to issue citations to CN for blocking crossings longer than 10 minutes. At that time, they cited a Dec. 10 incident in which a CN Railway train blocked the Van Lynn crossing for one hour and 38 minutes. The same crossing, which cuts off the only access to the east part of the county road, was blocked a few days later for 50 minutes by a stalled train.
Naglosky told the county board at that time the law is clear: Rail operators may block crossings for 10 minutes. He said his office has files containing legal opinions about blocked crossings dating back to 2007.
However, Naglosky said Tuesday citations were issued and the railroad simply pleaded guilty and paid a fine.
But that didn’t end the blockages and the sheriff’s office has continued to issue citations.
“The railroad opted to fight back and challenged the state statute,” he said. “The argument in Koochiching County is similar to arguments made in other jurisdictions — federal law preempts the state’s rights to regulate the railroads. This argument has been successful in other jurisdictions. The position of the County Attorney’s Office has been that a state statute is presumptively valid and we will continue to enforce the law as it is currently written. The judge took the matter under advisement on May 19. We have not yet received a ruling.”
Sheriff Perryn Hedlund told The Journal CN has successfully fought citations issued in other jurisdictions. He pointed to a ruling in favor of CN in Wisconsin and noted last July, a judge ruled in favor of BNSF Railway over the city of Benson, Minn.
“The judge ruled that MN Statue 219.383.3 is preempted by the Federal Railroad Safety Act,” said Hedlund.
Pavleck pointed to the power railroads have and have had historically in the U.S. “It will become more of an issue as there are increases in traffic with these kinds of cargoes, oil being one of them,” he said.
He also said the railroad lobbying industry is strong and has been reluctant to share the manifests of the contents of rail cars traveling through the U.S. and Canada.
“Just as a citizen, I damn well want to know what they’re transporting,” he said. “We’re the ones exposed and how do we prepare if we don’t know what to prepare for?”
And while Pavleck said rail companies have indicated they would share manifests with certain officials, Pavleck said that seems counter intuitive to safety.
“Ranier is just one example,” he said. “Look how close the people are to the trains.”