Train collision sends diesel into North Platte

A collision between two coal trains Monday left three locomotives and four coal cars derailed. Up to 6,000 gallons of diesel is believed to have leaked from the locomotives into the North Platte River at the scene of the crash north of the Guernsey Reservoir. (Photo courtesy of the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality)

By Heather Richards

Casper Star-Tribune

Via Wyoming News Exchange

CASPER — A coal train collision on Monday sent two locomotives partially into the North Platte River, potentially contaminating the waterway with thousands of gallons of diesel in a remote canyon north of the Guernsey Reservoir, according to state officials. 

Two of the company’s employees, an engineer and a conductor, suffered non-life threatening injuries from the incident, which involved one loaded coal train rear-ending another north of Wendover near Little Cottonwood Creek. The collision resulted in three derailed locomotives and four derailed cars, said Amy McBeth, a company spokeswoman. 

None of the spilled coal reached the river, but two of the derailed, diesel-fueled locomotives did. From engines that were flipped on their sides, as much as 6,000 gallons of diesel could have spilled, according to Joe Hunter, emergency response coordinator for the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. 

“That’s a worst-case scenario,” Hunter said. “I don’t have a good idea of how much went into the river, but it is a significant amount.” 

The collision happened in a remote area where the tracks skirt the southern edge of the North Platte as it passes through steep terrain. County officials headed to the scene Monday afternoon were unable to reach the actual derailment site because of the narrow canyon, said Terry Stevenson, emergency management coordinator for Platte County. 

BNSF transported the two injured employees out of the canyon via a company vehicle that can drive on train rails. They were then met by a Banner Health ambulance. The two employees were treated at the Platte County Memorial Hospital and released, Stevenson said. 

Cleanup of the diesel in the river could be completed by the end of the week, according to Hunter, who said the agency and the company were exploring multiple remediation options. That work is currently being hampered by the location of the crash. The tracks and overturned locomotives lie at the base of a 300- to 400-foot cliff face, Hunter said. 

The company had placed booms — floating devices made to trap and collect oil spills — downriver Monday. The company’s crews were working to put a boom closer to the edge of the diesel spill Tuesday afternoon. BNSF also asked that the Bureau of Reclamation, which controls the release of water upstream from the Glendo Reservoir, to slow the flow of the river.

The low flow of the water and the predominance of ice along the surface have helped contain the spill, said Hunter. 

“The good thing about petroleum products is they float on top of the water,” he said, noting that the booms should catch the diesel downstream. 

In the near term, the focus has been on containment of the spill and removing equipment from the tracks, said Amy McBeth, a spokeswoman for BNSF. 

The company has its own mechanism to handle incidents, injuries and clean up. Unless injuries are serious or there is a fire, local officials are not always involved. 

In this case, the Department of Environmental Quality is active because contamination reached the water. 

From the spill location, the North Platte feeds into the Guernsey Reservoir, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Reclamation. A spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation noted that the agency did not have jurisdiction of the site of the train collision upstream, so the agency’s involvement was limited to reducing the river flow. 

BNSF is investigating the incident. McBeth, the company spokeswoman, said the rail is expected to be back online Wednesday. That timeline is not certain given the difficult terrain, she said. 

Approximately 2,500 railroad workers reside in Wyoming, employed by BNSF and Union Pacific. The majority are located in the east side of the state, from Campbell County down to Laramie County.

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