D M and E train derailment spills 30,000 gallons of ethanol

COURTLAND, Minn. (AP) - Crews were cleaning a major ethanol spill Thursday after seven tanker cars were involved in a derailment Wednesday night south of this Blue Earth County town.

Kevin Schieffer, president of the Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern Railroad, said a preliminary investigation into the derailment points to problems with the more than 50-year-old railroad track in the area of southern Minnesota.

"It desperately needs to be replaced," he said of the track. "It is extremely frustrating because this doesn't need to happen."

The DM&E is awaiting word on a $2.3 billion federal loan that would pay for part of its $6 billion plan to rebuild 600 miles of track across South Dakota and Minnesota and add 260 miles of new track to reach Wyoming's Powder River Basin coal mines.

Schieffer said an estimated 30,000 gallons of ethanol spilled Wednesday night. It typically takes between two and four weeks to clean up such spills, he said.

A few homes were evacuated Wednesday, but their owners were back in them by noon Thursday.

Schieffer said repairs to the track would probably be finished by Friday. The derailment prompted the closure of state Highway 68 from Highway 15 near New Ulm to Blue Earth County Road 47 on Wednesday.

The state Transportation Department said the highway was expected to remain closed until noon Thursday. A department map on the Web showed no road closures in the area Thursday afternoon.

Schieffer said upgrades to the track in Minnesota was made even more pressing by the boom in ethanol around the state. "We are moving a little over 2,000 percent more ethanol than we did two years ago," he said. There have been several delays to the railroad's expansion plans, some caused by critics of the plan. Chief among them is the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, which has been critical of DM&E's safety record and is trying to block the loan.

The clinic, and its allies at the city of Rochester, have argued that the increased rail traffic could threaten the safety of the clinic's patients because the line runs near the clinic. They want the railroad to build a bypass around the city.