40,000 gallons of hydrochloric acid leaked in train derailment

Published 5:24 pm Monday, May 17, 2021

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Crews ‘working around the clock’ to clean up site

About 40,000 gallons of hydrochloric acid spilled into the soil and wetland on the western part of Goose Lake during the Union Pacific Railroad train derailment Saturday afternoon, authorities stated Monday.  

Freeborn County Emergency Manager Rich Hall said of the 28 train cars that derailed, three tanker cars full of hydrochloric acid were breached. Out of the three cars, one was completely emptied, and the other two were half-emptied. The remaining 20,000 gallons in those two cars has been transferred to storage tanks in a nearby staging area. 

Hall said crews have been “working around the clock” since the derailment Saturday afternoon cleaning up debris of damaged rail cars and railroad tracks. 

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He said Union Pacific has not given a definite timeframe on when the rail line will be up and running, though he noted a lot would depend on testing by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Representatives from the MPCA and the EPA are on site, putting together a mitigation plan with Union Pacific for how to deal with contaminated soils and the contamination in Goose Lake. 

Hall said a contractor has also put out four monitoring systems to test air quality, and all readings have indicated no risk to public health. The contractor and the MPCA are also conducting soil and water samples multiple times per day. 

Starting Monday evening, crews will begin neutralizing the chemical impacted on the rail right-of-way, which is approximately 25 feet on each side of the track from the center. 

The MPCA in a statement said the plan is to neutralize the acid with soda ash and then remove the impacted soil. Responders have prepared a lined cell in a nearby shallow area to serve as a staging area for the impacted soil. They will sample the soil to determine how to prepare it for disposal and what type of facility is needed to accept it.  

The MPCA is also monitoring the nesting area on the east side of the lake for geese and other waterfowl, though at this time it is further away from the contamination. 

The MPCA said an assessment of any impact to fish and wildlife is in the early stages, but at this time, no recent fish kill has been observed. 

The cause of the derailment is still under investigation by Union Pacific. 

“As far as if it was a bridge collapse, a bad rail — there will probably be some debate on that for a while,” Hall said, noting that when the bridge there collapsed, it crushed the culvert and the contamination was not able to continue on the west side of the bridge. A precautionary measure was also taken to temporarily fill the culvert for Goose Creek to prevent any contamination into Fountain and Albert Lea lakes. 

Hall noted in addition to the cars with hydrochloric acid, three other cars carrying liquid propane gas also derailed, but none of those tanks were breached, he said. Crews were uprighting those cars and expected to have them moved to solid ground by Monday evening. 

Two other cars carried potash and at least one carried lumber. He was unsure what was being transported in the remaining cars. 

Also assisting in the response have been the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and U.S. Department of Interior, along with local police and fire departments.