Duluth News Tribune

Hazardous materials workers from three major railroad companies continued work to contain a derailment spill of the combustible material octene south of Superior on Tuesday morning.

No injuries were reported as the result of the spill that happened late Monday and closed a portion of State Highway 35 for several hours this morning while the local fire departments responded to the four-car derailment and subsequent octene spill.

A coupler on one of the cars punctured a derailed tanker, causing the spill, said Town of Superior Volunteer Fire Department Chief Darryl Fiegle.

“Crews from BNSF, Canadian National and Union Pacific are working together to contain the leak and mitigate any spill and also on the removal of the downed cars,” Fiegle said.

A town of Superior fire crew was first alerted to the scene at 11:45 p.m. When they arrived the crew of the train advised the firefighters of the materials aboard the train and had been monitoring the amount of flow of the spill.  

There are two homes within 2,000 yards of the BNSF tracks where the derailment occurred; the homes were in no danger, said Fiegle, who described the derailment as happening in a railroad substation behind the Greenwood Cemetery near the corner of State Highway 35 and Douglas County Road C.

There was still no immediate word on what might have caused the derailment.

As of Tuesday morning, the cars remained on the scene of the derailment as teams of cleanup workers from the local railroad companies took over what was a slow-going hazardous materials cleanup effort. The derailed train belonged to Union Pacific, Fiegle said.

The Superior Fire Department’s hazmat team was called upon immediately for what was an all-night containment effort by the local authorities, Fiegle said.

Superior Batallion Chief Erik Sutton called it a “slow process” to get things cleaned up.

The highway remained closed for about five hours, according to the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. The highway was closed between Superior’s South End neighborhood and County Highway C, according to law enforcement reports. All lanes reopened by about 5:30 a.m., officials said.

According to the online chemistry database, PubChem, octene is a colorless liquid and while it floats on water its vapors are heavier than air and may settle in depressions. It’s reported to biodegrade slowly. Workers at the site were wearing respirators.

While combustible, Fiegle said octene doesn’t have a flashpoint until 70 degrees. It can also be an irritant of the lungs, skin and eyes, “but nothing anyone in the area needs to worry about.”

“It’s a substance that’s used in production of polypropylene and in mixture it’s used in lot of different substances,” Fiegle said of what is an oily substance. 

Asked to compare it to the 1992 Benzene spill that happened near the same area, Fiegle said it was no comparison. That spill resulted in the evacuation of more than 30,000 people in the Twin Ports and left a cloud of vapor 20 miles long and 5 miles wide.

“This was much definitely not that size of an incident,” he said.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources were among the agencies who responded to the incident.