Four BNSF railroad crew members were transported to a nearby hospital for medical examinations after a southbound freight train derailed in southwestern Wisconsin, sending some rail cars into the Mississippi River.
Residents of De Soto said it was the “loudest shriek they ever heard” when a BNSF Railway freight train derailed shortly after noon Thursday between De Soto and Ferryville in Crawford County.
The cause of the derailment is still unknown. Two locomotives and an unknown number of cars derailed on the eastern side of the river, a BNSF spokesperson said in a statement.
Crawford County Emergency Management Director Jim Hackett said the derailment poses no immediate threat to public safety.
Hackett said the derailed train cars contained paint, oxygen and lithium batteries.
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“At this time, we’re not concerned about any hazard to the public, the batteries have not gone into the water,” he said.
A Vernon County hazmat team is on site in the event of a hazardous waste situation. If lithium is exposed to water, a rupture or explosion can occur.
Two of the freight train’s three locomotives derailed and a diesel fuel leak from one of the locomotives has been “fairly contained” to the river bay, said Brandon Larson, director of Vernon County Emergency Management and Hazmat.
Larson’s team has deployed absorbent booms to soak up the spillage.
Two cars holding painted floated south down the river. Hackett said boat crews were able to secure the rouge cars to the bank.
Nearly 30 state, local and public agencies responded to the incident. Hackett said the community response — many volunteer firefighters — was “quick” and “amazing.”
First responders are expected to work through the night at the site. Officials said they do not know how long the clean up process will take.
BNSF is working to build “access ways” of rock and sand from Highway 35 to the railroad that runs parallel to the highway. Due to the waterway in between the railroad and the highway, a platform must be constructed so crews can access and remove the cars.
Private truck drivers contracting with BNSF have been hauling sand and rock from a quarry in Genoa to the accident location.
The cause of the derailment is under investigation, said BNSF spokesperson Lena Kent said. She did not immediately respond to a follow-up email inquiring about whether whether the derailment had caused any environmental contamination.
The Federal Railroad Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation that regulates safety across the nation’s railroads, said it was sending a team to the site to gather information and help local emergency workers.
“I live in the area and I told my wife a week ago, I said, ‘Because of all the high water, I said you watch, we’re gonna have a train derailment,’ and we sure did,” said Tim Lange of Ferryville.
Gov. Tony Evers tweeted that he was briefed on the derailment and is getting regular updates from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, the Department of Natural Resources and state emergency management officials. His spokesperson, Britt Cudaback, said in a short telephone interview that it wasn’t clear if any environmental contamination has happened.
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Katie Grant did not immediately respond to an email asking if the derailment has resulted in any environmental contamination.
U.S. Rep. Derrick Van Orden, who sits on the House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said in a statement he was working with BNSF, the Federal Emergency Management Association, Wisconsin Emergency Management, the state and national Departments of Transportation and Crawford County officials to find out what occurred.
“My staff is traveling to the site, and Congressman Troy Nehls, who Chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Rail, has also made staff available to assist our team,” Van Orden said. “We will continue to monitor the situation and determine next steps.”
Eileen Brown, who works at the Great River Roadhouse in De Soto, near where the derailment occurred, said, “We have flooding right now and it’s causing business to be a little slow so I’m kind of worried about what’s going on down there.”
This is not the first time a BNSF train has derailed near Ferryville. In 2016, two locomotives and six rail cars derailed due to extensive flooding after a rain event at a site about 5 miles south of Thursday’s derailment. An estimated 1,170 gallons of diesel poured into the river from a ruptured tank in the 2016 incident.
The derailment comes almost three months after a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Officials there decided to release and burn toxic vinyl chloride from five tanker cars to prevent a catastrophic explosion.
Hundreds of people had to evacuate in Raymond, Minnesota, last month after a BNSF train hauling ethanol and corn syrup derailed and caught fire.
On Thursday, federal regulators warned railroads that the long trains they favor can cause all kinds of problems and contribute to derailments, so they want the railroads to ensure their training and operating procedures account for that.
The Federal Railroad Administration stopped short of recommending in its latest safety advisory issued Thursday that railroads limit the size of their trains, which can routinely stretch more than 2 miles long. However, they did suggest a number of precautions including making sure engineers know how to handle them and that locomotives don’t lose communication with devices at the end of trains that can help trigger the brakes in an emergency.
Currently, there aren’t any restrictions on train length but members of Congress and state lawmakers in at least six states have proposed establishing limits particularly in the wake the Ohio derailment.
The Associated Press and Wisconsin State Journal reporter Anna Hansen contributed to this report.
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