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DNR says cleanup of diesel, coal from southeast Iowa train derailment is well underway

Iowa Department of Natural Resources officials say the environmental cleanup from a train derailment along the Mississippi River near Montrose is well underway. The collision happened when a BNSF Railway train collided with a river barge that had edged up on top of the tracks.

The process of cleaning up fuel and coal spilled into the Mississippi River following a train derailment in southeast Iowa is well underway, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. Several cars were knocked off the tracks near Montrose on Saturday, when a BNSF Railway train collided with a river barge, spilling diesel fuel and coal into the Mississippi.

Six rail cars and two locomotives went off the tracks near Montrose, spilling some 1,400 gallons of diesel and an unknown amount of coal onto the banks and into the Mississippi. There were no injuries reported. BNSF is using absorbent booms and vacuums to siphon up the fuel and excavators to scoop up the coal.

“BNSF Hazmat responded right away,” said Caroline Davis, an environmental specialist with DNR Field Office 6. “They’ve deployed booms along the shoreline to collect the floating diesel. So we’re using a [vacuum] truck essentially to remove it from pockets. I believe they are wrapping up removal of coal from the river.”

The remediation process will continue into Wednesday, when boats equipped with sonar are slated to survey the river for any remaining coal, which will be dredged.

The collision happened when a river barge that had been parked along the shore of the river apparently edged up over the riverbank and into the railroad right of way.

“We deploy all sorts of safety technology across the network to avoid any kinds of collisions or derailments such as this. We did not have technology in place to identify the nose of a barge creeping out of the river across our right of way,” said BNSF spokesperson Peter Skosey.

Officials from multiple agencies have responded to the incident, including local law enforcement, DNR Fisheries Management, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Coast Guard. Staff from the Keokuk Municipal Waterworks were also on site. Davis says she’s been told there was “no impact” to the city’s drinking water.

This is the latest in a string of BNSF derailments across the country so far this year. Data collected by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration shows that BNSF has had 175 train accidents and 188 highway-rail crossing incidents in 2021 alone. Some of the incidents involved spills of flammable or hazardous materials, some prompting evacuations of local residents.

The company is also being sued by passengers who were injured when an Amtrak train derailed off a track in Montana that BNSF owns.

Skosey says the company remains committed to operating safely and has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in order to do so, highlighting the company’s investments in a positive train control system, drone technology to monitor the tracks and detectors to identify mudslides and rockslides.

“There’s all sorts of technological systems that we have in place to ensure that we try to eliminate derailments as much as possible,” Skosey said. “We spend a great deal of money and time and resources trying to figure out ways to do that and to avoid these kinds of instances. Unfortunately at times they do occur.”

Kurt Levetzow, supervisor of Iowa DNR’s Field Office 6, says he’s not currently aware of any plans within the Environmental Services Division to seek enforcement actions against BNSF for the spill, but said the department’s fisheries division could come to its own conclusions, as could various federal agencies.

“Cases like this, we’re more concerned with remediation of what was spilled and what was impacted before we start talking enforcement,” Levetzow said, saying it was too early in the process to make any definitive decisions about fines or notices of violation.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter