A train hauling ethanol derailed Thursday morning in Raymond, Minnesota, igniting several rail cars and forcing a mandatory evacuation of the city of about 800, officials said.
The fire was still burning more than 14 hours after the derailment, the US Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday afternoon. An EPA team was in Raymond by 6:30 a.m. to conduct air quality monitoring.
The EPA said four cars that contained ethanol, which is highly flammable, “ruptured, caught fire” and continued to burn, and warned Thursday morning there were additional cars containing ethanol that “may also release.”
In a 3 p.m. update, the agency said the four cars burning had “denatured ethanol – ethanol containing gasoline to be used as a fuel additive,” and that crews were assessing impacts “to the three remaining denatured ethanol cars.”
The train, operated by BNSF Railway, derailed around 1 a.m. Homes within a half-mile of the derailment were evacuated, the Kandiyohi County Sheriff’s Office said.
“There have been no injuries as a result of the crash or emergency response,” the sheriff’s office posted on Facebook.
The evacuation order was lifted midday Thursday.
“Residents may return safely to their homes. There will be road detours in the area around the site,” the sheriff’s department said. “There is no impact to groundwater. Local responders and BNSF personnel continue to work to mitigate the incident.”
The EPA said Thursday afternoon it was monitoring the air for particulate matter and volatile organic compounds and was also overseeing BNSF’s air monitoring efforts. The evacuation order was lifted based on preliminary air monitoring data from the EPA and BNSF, the federal agency added.
“EPA has not found any (particulate matter) levels of concern in the community and so far, low levels below health concerns of (volatile organic compounds) have been detected only immediately downwind of the cars in a non-populated area,” the EPA said.
The foam that authorities will use to put out the blaze will not contain PFAS chemicals, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said during a Thursday news conference. PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” are a family of ubiquitous synthetic chemicals that linger in the environment and the human body, where they can cause serious health problems.
The governor said the “relatively frozen ground” in the area will likely help with remediation efforts because the ethanol should burn off more easily. He added that the state’s pollution control agency will work to ensure there is no runoff into local water sources.
How this crash differs from the East Palestine wreck
The fiery derailment in Raymond happened almost two months after a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio.
That disaster ignited a dayslong inferno, spewed poisonous fumes into the air and killed thousands of fish. It also left East Palestine residents wondering if a variety of health problems since the derailment are liked to the wreck.
Both freight trains were carrying highly flammable and potentially toxic chemicals, such as vinyl chloride in Ohio and ethanol in Minnesota.
Preliminary information from Minnesota suggests 14 of the train’s 40 cars were carrying hazardous material, “including ethanol, which was released – leading to a fire,” US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN Thursday.
In addition to ethanol, the train was carrying mixed freight including corn syrup, said Lena Kent, general director of public affairs for BNSF Railway.
Ethanol can explode when mixed with vapor and air. Ethanol exposure can lead to coughing, dizziness, the feeling of burning eyes, drowsiness and unconsciousness.
But there are differences between the chemicals on board the trains in Minnesota and Ohio, says Purdue University professor Andrew Whelton.
“Ethanol, like many chemicals, can be toxic if inhaled or comes into contact with skin or is ingested. But it requires a certain concentration to be a health hazard,” said Whelton, an expert in environmental chemistry and water quality.
Ethanol is highly soluble in water, meaning it will be relatively easy to dilute. “Dilution is one way to reduce the risk” of health issues from any water that may be contaminated with ethanol, Whelton said.
By contrast, the chemicals released in the Ohio train wreck “are generally heavier and less soluble in water,” Whelton said. “They sunk to the bottom of the creek and stayed. They didn’t flush away there.”
But it’s still not clear what may have been mixed with the ethanol on the train that derailed in Minnesota. While ethanol is a single compound, there are different blends of ethanol that may have different additives in them and could change the health risk, Whelton said.
A loud crash and a chemical stench
Brittney Phelps and her family were startled by a knock on their door at 1:30 a.m. It was a first responder going door to door telling residents to flee as a precaution.
“I heard a loud crash but didn’t think anything of it ‘til ambulances were outside the house,” Phelps said.
She soon smelled the stench of ethanol and saw the wrecked train cars and large fire, Phelps told CNN.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation closed a nearby highway due to the derailment and blaze, the fire department said. The main railroad track is blocked, and an estimated time for reopening the line was not available.
The cause of the derailment is under investigation. A team from the National Transportation Safety Board is expected to arrive at the site Thursday afternoon, the NTSB said.
CNN’s Andi Babineau, Meridith Edwards, Kara Devlin, Brenda Goodman and Gregory Wallace contributed to this report.