Is Minneapolis ready to respond to an oil train derailment?

An ethanol train derailment in Cherry Valley, Ill. Credit: Wikipedia

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On a scale of 1 to 5, nearly half of Minnesota’s first responders rate their preparedness for an oil transportation emergency with a low ranking of 1 or 2. Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel said the city’s career firefighters have an advantage over volunteer-driven stations across the state, as Minneapolis has ongoing training to fight oil fires. But a train derailment would be a challenge for any department, he said.

“Many different kinds of hazardous materials are running through this city on any given day. … Almost everything comes through this city,” he said. “It still presents a lot of challenges if we have this type of event in the center of an urban area. It would be extremely challenging for us.”

In derailments to-date involving Bakken crude oil, the oil has easily ignited, said Craig Schafer, an emergency response specialist for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

“The cars have 30,000 gallons apiece, that’s an awful lot of fuel,” he said. “Until the fuel is burned up, you’re not going to put that fire out easily.”

In a significant crude oil fire, it may be best to let the fire burn out or burn down to a manageable level, experts said in a state report. An evacuation could reach up to a half-mile radius. A mutual aid alarm system could call in emergency responders from outside the city. The airport could provide additional firefighting foam if needed. Hazmat teams would carry detection equipment and plume modeling technology. The responsible railroad company could also bring in a foam trailer and other specialized equipment.

Some residents who live near railroad tracks are wary about how an emergency would play out.

“When you talk about evacuating neighborhoods, we have absolutely no idea what that looks like,” said Cedar-Isles-Dean resident Craig Westgate, who has researched trains running through Minneapolis. “I’m excited this is getting the attention that it needs.”

Schafer has responded to three major train derailments in Minnesota: a 2004 derailment that spilled ethanol and crude soybean oil into waterways near Balaton, a 2006 derailment spilling ethanol near the Minnesota River outside Cambria, and a 2007 derailment that spilled hydrochloric acid and required the evacuation of a quarter of Clara City. Schafer remembers worrying about the potential for a fire when the ethanol spilled in Balaton, as it was a hot July night and there was lightning in the sky.

Schafer said that in the initial hour or two of an emergency, responders’ first obligation is to protect public safety and welfare. They try to minimize the footprint of the incident and conduct evacuations if necessary. First responders must plan in advance how to transport less ambulatory people with special needs, he said, as well as people without transportation.

“It’s very important for people to follow the instructions of public safety responders. If they’re asking people to evacuate, I hope people take that seriously,” he said.

The state recommends that families make a list of things they would quickly pack in an emergency, such as money, glasses, meds, diapers or pet carriers.

Schafer said the properties of crude oil are not only highly flammable, but are hazardous to health in the air. He said Bakken crude has a fairly thin viscosity, like raw gasoline, and it burns very hot.

The fireballs generated from oil train derailments typically don’t expand far horizontally, Schafer said, and there isn’t the shrapnel or debris one would expect from an exploding car. Fireballs reaching 400-500 feet create a very hot fire and radiant heat zone, he said.

“They don’t typically explode, they pop,” he said.

Ethanol is less volatile than crude oil, but it can still present a serious biological threat, Schafer said. If a large volume of ethanol is spilled into water, it can deplete the oxygen and create a large-scale aquatic species kill.

In the event of a spill, emergency workers would try to minimize the footprint of the release, Schafer said, or allow the spill to seep into an area where it’s easier to contain.

Fruetel said the city has access to boats and booms that could help contain a spill.

Emergency responders only allow residents to return to their homes when the air is deemed safe, the material is clear from all conduits and sewer lines, and there are no vapors in homes and buildings, Schafer said.

“The decision to evacuate is probably easier and less stressful than the decision to let people back in,” he said.

Although local responders are first on the scene, railroad companies carry the ultimate responsibility for the response, according to the state Dept. of Public Safety.

BNSF Spokesperson Amy McBeth said the railroad uses a GIS system to alert the closest emergency responders and contractors based in and around Fargo, Duluth, Minneapolis, Morris and Bemidji. The railroad stocks firefighting foam trailers, air monitoring assets and river spill equipment, she said.

Canadian Pacificspokesman Andy Cummings said the railroad bases equipment and emergency responders in the Twin Cities, and said the railroad bears responsibility for cleanup and investigation into the cause of an incident.

The state requires a railroad representative and air monitoring equipment to be onsite within three hours.

“Compared to other states, we have quick response times in MN,” said one unidentified rail company in a state report, who said staff could arrive within two hours.

Fruetel said Minneapolis firefighters would likely defer to railroad staff to shut down a locomotive engine, which can cause serious injury if not shut down properly.

MPCA staff have reviewed railroad companies’ emergency response plans. They also analyzed railroads’ past responses to actual incidents. Schafer said that in the incidents he’s responded to, the railroads were quick to bring in resources.

“Historically, railroads are pretty darn well-prepared,” he said.

BNSF trained more than 1,000 first responders in Minnesota last year and paid for 300 of them to travel to a Pueblo, Colo. facility where they can see demonstrations of crude oil fires and conduct full-scale derailment exercises.

Canadian Pacific provides year-round training to first responders, including table top exercises to test readiness for theoretical incidents. The company also gives scholarships to the aforementioned crude-by-rail training facility in Colorado.

“They get experience using foam to extinguish fires specifically on railroad tank cars,” Cummings said.

Homeland Security Emergency Management, in cooperation with the railroads, leads awareness-level training for first responders as well.

Fruetel said he’s confident the department could maintain a response to an oil train derailment.

“The bigger issue is what we can do on the prevention side of this to prevent a catastrophic accident,” he said.