A train derailment has caused soybean oil to leak into the Mississippi River, and authorities are now trying to contain the damage.
The accident took place in the immediate proximity of the Brownsville Overlook, approximately 3 miles south of Brownsville, in Houston County, Minnesota.
On Tuesday, January 26, at approximately 10:45 p.m., a mixed-freight train which was heading south experienced problems as it was approaching Reno. Fifteen of its tanker cars ran off the tracks, 6 of them eventually plunging into the Mississippi River.
The vehicle, operated by Canadian Pacific Railway, was transporting soybean oil, as well as sodium chlorate powder, a compound that is normally used as a herbicide and in order to bleach wood pulp and produce white paper.
Apparently, the 6 tankers that wound up in the Mississippi River were all hauling vegetable oil, and first responders only managed to reach the area and search for any potential damage caused by the train derailment sometime around noon.
That’s how they came to the conclusion that one of the train cars was leaking soybean oil into the river, and alert was raised immediately.
As explained by David Morrison, on-scene coordinator at the United States Environmental Protection Agency, vegetable oil behaves similarly with petroleum when it’s poured into the water. As it coats aquatic plants and animals like mussels and fish, it leaves them without oxygen, causing them to suffocate.
It also puts wildlife at risk of hypothermia (because it reduces the creatures’ ability to stay warm), while also resulting in starvation, diarrhea and dehydration.
Aside from this toxic effect on local fauna and flora, vegetable oil spill are also at risk of bursting into flames if the hazardous compounds comes into contact with sources of ignition.
Given this wide array of negative effects triggered by such a contamination, authorities are now trying to retrieve the spillage and curb the damage.
Luckily, for now the food-grade oil leak hasn’t spread beyond the tank yet, and officials have managed to place 5 of the tanker cars back on the rail tracks, but there are still difficulties addressing this crisis effectively.
According to Andy Cummings, a representative of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the only way to solve the problem is by extracting the train cars from the river, but the derailed vehicles can’t be pulled out of the water before being unloaded.
As a result, emergency workers will initially have to repair the railway tracks first, so that other vacant train cars can be brought safely to the scene.
Then, the cargo contained in the derailed cars will be transferred to these empty containers, and only afterwards will the crew attempt to take the tankers out of the Mississippi river.
Even so, in the opinion of Canadian Pacific Railway’s spokesperson, the train derailment could’ve been much more disastrous, if the tanker cars that were submerged had been the ones carrying sodium chlorate.
That substance is approximately 30 to 50 times more perilous than regular table salt when it comes into contact with algae and other plants, and it can poison aquatic animals as well.
Among humans, exposure to sodium chlorate can result in vomiting, nausea, stomach pain, diarrhea, breathlessness, and irritations affecting the mucous membranes, eyes and skin.
While a small quantity of sodium chlorate did leave the tanks during the derailment, it seems it didn’t reach the water also.
Mark Inglett, Houston’s County Sheriff, has also commented on the incident, mentioning that things could’ve taken a much darker turn if anyone had been injured when the train went off the tracks, or if the cars had been carrying more toxic substances, such as Bakken crude oil.
For now, it hasn’t been determined how much soybean oil has reached the Mississippi River following this train derailment, and the cause of the accident is still being probed into by the Federal Railroad Administration.
The scene of the derailment is also teeming with representatives of the Mississippi River Basin Association, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Coastal Guard.
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