Derailed train burned for two days

Tuesday, March 14, 2017
The Union Pacific train was carrying ethanol from the Green Plains Inc. facility in Superior and continued to burn throughout the day Friday and Saturday. It derailed along tracks approximately one mile southeast of Graettinger, near a tributary of the West Fork of the Des Moines River.
Photo by Seth Boyes

National Transportation Safety Board officials arrived Friday as fuel tank cars from a derailed train continued to burn throughout the day. The fire continued to burn until Sunday.

Flames lit up the sky just before 1 a.m. Friday and prompted the initial call to the Palo Alto County Sheriff’s Office. 

The Union Pacific train was carrying ethanol from the Green Plains Inc. facility in Superior. It derailed along tracks approximately one mile southeast of Graettinger, near Jack Creek, a tributary of the West Fork of the Des Moines River.

The train was carrying two employees, according to officials with the sheriff’s office and National Transportation Safety Board. No one was injured.

Union Pacific officials, along with cleanup crews, arrived on site, detached a majority of the 101 tanker cars and removed them from the area. Officials made the decision to leave approximately 27 tanker cars on the tracks as the fire continued to burn.

Residents within a half-mile radius had to vacate their homes early on. They were allowed to return at approximately 10:30 Friday morning, when the blaze was considered less of a threat. 

NTSB officials arrived on the scene later in the day to investigate the cause of the derailment. Specifically, the NTSB mobilized 15 members of a "Go Team" to address the situation. Members of the team came to the Graettinger area from both Washington, D.C., and Biloxi, Mississippi, where they were concluding an investigation into a fatal collision between a bus and a train near the Gulf Coast. 

The fuel tanks near Graettinger were DOT-111 rail cars, according to a statement from the NTSB.

“The NTSB has identified many vulnerabilities in the DOT-111 tank car design that create the risk of the release of hazardous materials or flammable liquids when those tank cars are involved in an accident,” investigators with the NTSB said.

The rail industry has been mandated by Congress to end the use of DOT-111 cars for the transporting of hazardous materials and liquids by 2029, according to the federal agency. 

At least seven significant accidents involving train cars transporting ethanol have occurred since 2006. The accidents caused the release of about 2 million gallons of fuel, according to information gathered by the Associated Press.

“Initial reports further indicated some of the cars were on fire and that an unknown amount of the ethanol had spilled into the creek,” a NTSB's statement added. 

Local Iowa Department of Natural Resource officials collected water samples from the creek at the derailment site for testing, according to the Palo Alto County Sheriff’s Office. Crews began removing the cars from the track Monday morning. The last two cars to be removed leaked less than 2,000 gallons of ethanol into the creek below, according to the DNR. Conservation officials reported normal levels of dissolved oxygen in the three locations downstream Monday afternoon.

"This is consistent with what we’ve seen since the accident occurred on Friday," DNR environmental specialist Amber Wolf, said.

Wolf added that oxygen levels in the water have not dropped to a level that would harm fish. The DNR plans to continue monitoring the cleanup efforts and take additional action if necessary.

Fire departments from Graettinger and Emmetsburg assisted Palo Alto County deputies and road maintenance officials. Ambulance crews from the two cities were also on hand.

State agencies included the Iowa State Patrol and the Department of Transportation's Iowa Commercial Motor Vehicle Enforcement Division. Emergency Management officials from Palo Alto and Pocahontas County joined responders at the scene.

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