Train derailment in Albert Lea spilled 40,000 gallons of corrosive acid

The train derailed on the edge of Goose Lake and protected wetlands.
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Officials are working to contain and clean up 40,000 galls of hydrochloric acid that spilled alongside protected wetlands during a train derailment over the weekend.

Twenty-eight Union Pacific cars went off the track near Goose Lake and Eastgate Road in Albert Lea around 1:45 p.m. on May 15, according to Freeborn County. Three rail tanker cars, all carrying the corrosive solution, were breached, with one spilling the entirety of its content into and around the site.

Now, multiple agencies are on the site, watching over clean-up and containment efforts, monitoring air quality and testing the waters of Goose Lake.

"The No. 1 concern is any harmful impact to humans, whether by vapor or contact with contaminated soil," the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), whose emergency responders have been at the derailment site since Saturday, told Bring Me The News Tuesday. A residential area is situated just west of the site.

The vapors from hydrochloric acid can be harmful to humans, the agency said. They've been monitoring the air nearby, and haven't seen anything rising to a level of concern, the agency said. The acid can also burn skin and mucous membranes. 

"Air monitoring will continue until the MPCA is satisfied that the hydrochloric acid spilled has been neutralized and is no longer a threat," the agency said.

The derailment is also on the western edge of Goose Lake (a shallow, 79-acre lake) and the Goose Lake Waterfowl Production Area. That area is a 162-acre wetland managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with the goal of supporting waterfowl populations, and preserving habitat for migratory birds, threatened and endangered native species, and resident wildlife.

USFWS staff are on the scene and "coordinating closely with the Incident Command Team," the agency told Bring Me The News. 

The MPCA said there was concern over any impact on downstream waters, as an outlet creek connects to a downstream lake. But responders found something of a positive: The derailment crushed a culvert and pushed mud into the outlet, "effectively blocking the outlet of the lake and preventing impacts to the outlet creek and a downstream lake."

Water monitoring in Goose Lake by the MPCA and a contractor is also occurring, as hydrochloric acid can reduce the pH level below what is sustainable for aquatic life, the MPCA said. Recent readings show a pH level of 2.0-3.0, the agency said, well below the goal of 6.0-8.0. Responders plan to spread crushed limestone across Goose Lake by boat before sunset Tuesday to raise the pH once again.

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Soil treatment began Monday evening, Freeborn County said, in the areas 25 feet out on each side of the tracks.

"Union Pacific is in the process of working with the EPA and the MPCA to mitigate the spill and contaminated soil and wetlands," the county added.

Like what will happen in Goose Lake, the MPCA said soda ash and crushed limestone were applied to the soil to counteract the acid. Responders then moved the impacted soil to a temporary, plastic-lined staging area - where it can be treated further, without contaminating anything else.

"The MPCA’s role is make sure it’s done right, that the responsible party conducts the containment and cleanup in an appropriate way, following all applicable Minnesota rules," the agency said.

The county says the cause of the derailment is under investigation.

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