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Train derails in northwest Iowa, spills crude into river

It's believed floodwaters weakened ground beneath tracks

Derailed tanker cars carrying crude oil are shown Friday near the flooding Little Rock River near Doon in far northwest Iowa. About 31 cars derailed after the tracks collapsed, reportedly due to saturation from floodwaters. (Tim Hynds/Sioux CIty Journal)
Derailed tanker cars carrying crude oil are shown Friday near the flooding Little Rock River near Doon in far northwest Iowa. About 31 cars derailed after the tracks collapsed, reportedly due to saturation from floodwaters. (Tim Hynds/Sioux CIty Journal)

DOON, Iowa — Cleanup efforts began Friday at the site of a derailed BNSF Railway freight train that spilled thousands of gallons of crude oil into a swollen river in southern Lyon County in far northwest Iowa.

The derailment forced the evacuation of residents from several neighboring farms and sent oil downstream to Rock Valley, where hundreds of workers and volunteers spent much of Friday morning sandbagging and building berms to protect homes on the city’s west side from the flooded Rock River.

Though investigators have not yet identified the cause of the accident, local authorities believe floodwaters from the nearby Little Rock River caused the ground to weaken beneath the tracks. Standing water was visible on both sides of the tracks Friday morning.

State environment officials warned other downtown communities — including Hawarden, Akron and Sioux City — that oil could flow further south into other rivers and bodies of water.

The Little Rock River is a tributary of the Rock River, which feeds into the Big Sioux River and eventually the Missouri River.

The 33-car train was heading south from Alberta, Canada, when it derailed around 4:30 a.m. Friday. No injuries were reported, said Amy McBeth, a spokesperson for BNSF.

HAZMAT teams, environmental experts and other BNSF teams arrived Friday with containment booms and skimmers to try and prevent the oil slick from spreading further downstream.

“We’re working to contain oil that spilled as close to the site as we can,” McBeth said.

McBeth said she could not say how much oil the tanker cars were carrying or how much oil had spilled into the water.

As of Friday afternoon, the cars remained sunk in the water. Though not all of the tankers were leaking, a large number were, according to observers.

Depending on the size, a rail tanker car can hold about 700 barrels of crude, or nearly 30,000 gallons, according to industry figures.

Four nearby residences were evacuated as a result of the derailment and oil spill.

A firefighter serving the Doon Volunteer Fire Department said he was paged at 5:46 a.m. and asked to respond to a BNSF derailment. Arriving firefighters were greeted with a strong smell coming from the train.

“I can smell it. We’re a mile-and-a-half away, and I can smell it in the air,” Lyon County Sheriff Stewart Vander Stoep said.

The engines pulling the train were removed from the derailment site and sat more than a mile southeast of the wreckage.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has sent a team to monitor the situation.

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