Railroad draining ethanol from derailed train cars near Dubuque, monitoring river

'Some ethanol has reached the water, but we're not sure how much'

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DUBUQUE COUNTY — Canadian Pacific employees worked Thursday to drain ethanol from 15 derailed tank cars north of Dubuque after a wreck Wednesday that caused three cars to erupt in flames and three to slide onto the frozen Mississippi River.

The railroad also set up 40 monitoring sites for 10 miles downriver to detect how much ethanol is in the water and whether the fuel is depleting oxygen for fish and other wildlife, spokesman Andy Cummings said Thursday afternoon.

“Some ethanol has reached the water, but we’re not sure how much,” Cummings said. “Canadian Pacific is coordinating with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish & Wildlife and the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure we’re protecting the environment.”

Eight of the derailed cars lost at least some ethanol, and one was still believed to be leaking as of Thursday afternoon, according to a news release from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Officials estimated ethanol covered and froze an area about a half-acre in size around the derailment site. They planned to use a stream sprayer to thaw the ethanol and vacuum the product into a tank. If successful, the process would be repeated for the ethanol on top of the ice, according to the release.

The southeast-bound train that jumped the tracks around 11:30 a.m. Wednesday included DOT-111s, outdated tank cars that are prone to rupture in derailments.

The cars are technically compliant with federal law, but the U.S. Department of Transportation has proposed a two-year phaseout for using the tankers to carry flammable liquids like crude oil and ethanol because of the danger of explosions or spills.

Fifteen cars derailed Wednesday, with 14 of those carrying ethanol. Of the three cars that caught fire, all had burned out by Thursday afternoon. Workers were able to put two cars back on the rails and remove them from the site. Three cars remain on top of the frozen river, Canadian Pacific reported.

No one was injured in the wreck.

Railroads have little say over the use of DOT-111s because the shippers own or lease the cars. Railroads can’t reject legal loads, even if the freight is hazardous material. Canadian Pacific introduced a $325-per-car surcharge last year for all older tank cars as a way to encourage shippers to upgrade, Canadian Press spokesman Ed Greenberg said in May 2014.

The rail car industry started making safer tank cars in 2011, but with a national uptick in crude production, the DOT-111s are critical to shipping oil from places such as North Dakota and Colorado to refineries in Texas and Louisiana.

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