Walz, BNSF Railway promise safe, transparent cleanup after Raymond derailment
The Minnesota governor and others praised the emergency response to the train derailment and fire
RAYMOND, Minn. — Gov. Tim Walz and company officials with BNSF Railway promised residents of Raymond on Thursday that everything will be done to assure a safe and transparent cleanup following the overnight derailment of 22 rail cars containing ethanol, which caught fire, and corn syrup.
“The safety of the community is our utmost priority,” Matt Garland, vice president of transportation for BNSF, told evacuated Raymond residents and members of the media at the Unity Christian Reformed Church in Prinsburg on Thursday morning.
“We apologize for this and take full accountability for it,” Katie Farmer, CEO of the Fort Worth, Texas-based company, told the gathering. “We are working very hard to get you all back in your homes as quickly as possible.”
Company officials said they did not know the cause of the derailment, which happened around 1 a.m. Thursday on the western edge of the community. They were waiting for representatives of the National Transportation Safety Board to reach the site and begin their investigation.
No one was injured, and no property was damaged as a result of the derailment and subsequent fire, which involved a northbound train that originated in Sioux City, Iowa. BNSF gave the all-clear for residents to return to their homes at 11 a.m. Thursday, although Minnesota Highway 23 and Chippewa County Road 13 remained closed. There was no word on when roads would reopen.
Gov. Tim Walz toured the site of the derailment, where firefighters and emergency responders from more than 25 agencies were on site. He saw rail cars strewn about and stacked upon one another, and flames. He said what he noticed most was the number of responders on site and the number of community names on the fire and emergency vehicles there.
“When something happens, your neighbors are there,” Walz said.
“Typical of a small-town response,” Kandiyohi County Sheriff Eric Tollefson said of the multi-agency response to the crisis. The sheriff said that BNSF was very responsive and recommended quickly that a half-mile area surrounding the rail line be evacuated.
“Well, that’s all of Raymond,” the sheriff said.
Volunteers and law enforcement personnel knocked on the doors of an estimated 250 houses and residences in the community of around 800 people in the middle of the night.
An estimated 150 to 175 residents drove to Prinsburg, where they initially were sheltered at the Central Minnesota Christian School and later moved to the Unity Christian Reformed Church, where they were fed breakfast. Other residents took shelter at Cheers, located just outside of Raymond, while others went to the homes of friends and family in the region. The Raymond Ambulance transported some of the evacuees to Prinsburg.
Walz and BNSF officials told residents that there will likely still be fires at the site on Friday. The derailed cars were leaking ethanol, and the fires could flare as the cars are moved, they said.
The governor and officials also said there was no danger to groundwater. The ethanol leaking from the cars was burning on partially frozen ground. There were no toxic exposures that resulted from the derailment. Air monitoring was being conducted, according to the company representatives.
Walz praised BNSF officials for their decision years ago to replace their entire fleet of rail cars for ethanol with an encapsulated tanker that does not explode. Firefighters have to use foam to squelch the burning ethanol, the governor said. The foam being used at the site does not contain PFAS, the “forever chemicals" that are a cause for health concerns.
Of the 22 cars that derailed, “approximately 10” held ethanol, Garland said. The fuel is classified as a hazardous material, and is the only hazardous material the train was moving, according to company officials.
Farmer and Garland said BNSF Railway will have claims representatives in Raymond through the week to assist residents who experienced losses due to the derailment. They can be reached at 866-243-4784 and the Willmar Area Community Foundation has activated the Willmar Area Response Fund to help affected residents. More information can be found on the foundation website at www.communitygiving.org/WACF.
“We are just grateful that everybody was safe right away,” said State Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, who joined the governor and company officials in applauding the local response to the emergency. He also cited the way that people in Prinsburg and around the region joined to support those affected.
Pastor Steve Zwart of the Unity Christian Reformed Church in Prinsburg said the church was “inundated” with help for the evacuees in the hours following the derailment. He called the response a tribute to the “powerful movement of small town helping small town helping small town.”