Red Wing city, railroads ready in case of disaster
When Colleen Clark took her 4-year-old grandson to Bay Point Park to watch the trains, she thought it would be the perfect opportunity to practice his counting skills. One, two, three, four... all the way up to 89 tanker cars passed them by.
It wasn't until a few days later, after Clark read about the deadly July 6 train derailment in Quebec, that she stopped the think about what was being transported in those 89 cars.
"It piqued my curiosity about what's really coming through the community," Clark said.
Trains of tanker cars like the one Clark and her grandson counted are becoming increasingly commonplace in rail towns around the country, driven largely by the booming Bakken oil fields in North Dakota.
With oil production outpacing the capacity of available pipelines, refineries are relying more and more on railroads for transportation.
In the first six months of 2013, railways in the U.S. saw an average of more than 13,000 cars a month carrying petroleum and petroleum products, a nearly 50 percent increase in traffic compared to the same period in 2012, according to the Association of American Railroads.
Two of the largest railroads in the region, Canadian Pacific and BNSF Railway, transport hazardous materials - including crude oil - across the state regularly. They operate rails along the Mississippi River passing through Red Wing and Hager City.
Should a train accident and hazardous spill occur nearby, Red Wing Fire Chief Tom Schneider said first responders have the training and resources necessary to begin handling the situation.
"Our primary function is to contain the spill to the best of our ability, and then let the big guys come to help," Schneider said.
Once RWFD crews assess the scene and identify the materials involved, they can call the Minnesota Duty Officer, a program for local governments to request aid from state agencies, as well as the railroad involved.
When local train derailments occurred in the past, Schneider said Canadian Pacific responded to the scene quickly. "They have been amazing to work with," he said.
Although he could not comment on the exact nature and quantity of the freight that comes through Red Wing for security reasons, Canadian Pacific spokesperson Andy Cummings said the railroad works extensively with communities to plan for disasters.
"The safety of our operations is paramount," Cummings said.
Canadian Pacific offers training courses for first responders on how to put out fires on locomotives and shut off train equipment if necessary, Schneider said.
Additionally, depending on the severity of a spill, Goodhue County's Office of Emergency Management can activate the civil defense sirens and send reverse 911 messages to inform residents where to take shelter or evacuate, OEM Director Diane Richter-Biwer said.
The city also can utilize the Community Awareness and Emergency Response, or CAER, group, which combines local government agencies and businesses to share resources and equipment.
Red Wing CAER holds yearly drills to prepare for disaster situations.
Freight train derailments are generally rare, with railroads and industry groups touting rail as the safest mode of land transportation.
More than 99.99 percent of BNSF's hazardous material shipments arrived at their destinations without incident in 2012, according to railroad spokesperson Amy McBeth.
The industry as a whole has reduced the rate of hazardous material accidents by 91 percent since 1980, she added.
But there have been a number of recent derailments in the state, including Red Wing.
The first major oil spill from a train derailment in Minnesota occurred March 27 near Parkers Prairie, northwest of the Twin Cities. 14 cars on a Canadian Pacific train went off the track, causing three tankers to spill approximately 15,000 gallons of crude oil.
There were 202 train accidents reported in Minnesota between fiscal years 2003 and 2012, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. They involved a total of 68 cars with hazardous materials being damaged or derailed, nine of which released some of their contents.
There have been two train derailments in Red Wing in the last decade, but they did not involve crude oil, said Roger Hand, the city's director of Emergency Management.
The first incident, a derailment of a Canadian Pacific train in 2003 just west of the Red Wing Depot, put the city's response plan to the test after methanol started leaking from one of the cars.
"What we did was open a mini emergency operations center to coordinate with law enforcement and railroad personnel," Hand said. "It went very well, and everyone appreciated being able to communicate face to face instead of over the phone or by email."
A Canadian Pacific train also derailed near Bay Point Park last year. The train had five cars with a hazardous payload, but none of the material was released.