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Wendy Reuer, Published May 16 2012

Derailment debris in Red River raises concerns

MOORHEAD – When a fisherman alerted Bob Backman to railroad debris in the Red River, he was immediately concerned.

Railroad debris can be both dangerous to navigate and environmentally hazardous, said Backman, the executive director of River Keepers, a nonprofit Red River advocacy group.

The riverboat captain and River Keepers Project Manager Christine Laney boated down the Red River and saw areas of debris they believe likely came from a BNSF Railway train derailment that occurred March 17 near the bridge over First Avenue North.

All the debris – including railroad ties, walkway planks and bridge timbers – was found downstream from the bridge.

“This looked like relatively new railroad debris,” Backman said Tuesday. “I made about a dozen phone calls, including one to the railroad.”

BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth agrees the debris is likely from the derailment. She said the railroad was unaware it was in the river until Backman contacted the company.

She said on Wednesday that boat crews were sent two days before, on Monday, to begin cleanup. She said that would take a few days. She did not know how far crews would work downstream.

“What we’re doing is they are locating it and essentially going through the area and loading it out and removing it. It will be recycled,” she said.

Backman said it’s a safety concern for people on the river. If the current dislodges any one of the large pieces, still visible along the shores Tuesday, they could harm other boaters and fishermen in the water.

“It’s dangerous,” Backman said. “We’re not suggesting anything, we’re just asking, ‘Why are (the debris) still here?’ ”

He said Tuesday it is unknown if and how many pieces of debris could have floated downstream. “They could be in Canada by now.”

Railroad ties are often treated with creosote, a common wood preservation chemical derived from the distillation of tar. The impact of the debris on water quality and aquatic life is a serious concern, Laney said.

McBeth said the railroad ties in the river are believed to be treated with creosote but the other debris is not.

“We know of no concerns of water quality, as of now,” McBeth said Wednesday.

The March 17 derailment was determined to be the result of a train car’s broken wheel. It caused a section of the train to leave the tracks near Moorhead’s Riverfront Park, stalling the train across intersections at Seventh and Eighth streets. About 20 to 30 cars were left in the park overnight.

The railway was cleared, but the railroad continues to clean up the area around the derailment.

“Separately we have crews doing restoration work of the asphalt in the area and grass that was damaged,” McBeth said. “That work is pretty typical after a derailment.”

Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland said he has heard complaints from residents about the length of time it has taken the railroad to clean up.

McBeth said the delay in cleaning the river debris was simply a matter of the railroad not knowing about it. The other work typically occurs at a later date; repairing and cleaning the tracks after a derailment comes first.

“Crews are there this week,” she said. “Additional work typically occurs at a later date. And so, they should complete their work there in the next several days.”

Backman said he and River Keepers – which conducts boat tours of the river during the summer – just wanted to make sure the railroad was aware of the ties and would be cleaning them up.

“I don’t think we should have to clean up their debris,” Backman said.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Wendy Reuer at (701) 241-5530