Fond du Lac band angry over response to coal train spill

Updated 4:48 p.m. | Posted 4:11 p.m.

Leaders of a northeastern Minnesota Native American tribe say they were not properly notified about a coal train derailment that happened Saturday on tribal land.

Kevin DuPuis, chair of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said it took about four hours for Burlington Northern Santa Fe to notify the band after the train derailed around 11:30 a.m. north of Cloquet, Minn., along the banks of the St. Louis River.

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About 40 cars from a 121-car train carrying coal derailed, spilling coal on to the ground and on to the frozen, ice-covered river. At a news conference Tuesday morning, DuPuis said several cars were still on the ice.

"We have jurisdiction. It's within the confines of our reservation. It's within our lands. We are the lead agency and we should have been contacted," DuPuis said. "There should have been collaboration to ensure that the cleanup is done the right way within the eyes of the band."

The railroad tracks run along an easement through the reservation that tribal officials say was granted by Congress in 1888. But DuPuis said the accident extended beyond the easement boundaries on both sides and onto sovereign, tribally-controlled land.

Tribal officials said initially they were denied access to the site, although DuPuis said later the railroad company allowed tribal employees to conduct water quality testing. Fond du Lac enforces its own water quality standards that are recognized by the federal government.

Band leaders also said the railroad company did not respond to their requests to cooperate with their emergency management staff on an emergency response plan.

DuPuis said he's asking for cooperation and respect.

"If it happened in the city of Cloquet, do you think they would have contacted the local law enforcement?" he asked. "EMS? I think so. I think they would have done everything they could to ensure safety."

The band, he added, is reviewing its options in the event the company doesn't grant site access and cooperate in developing emergency management plans, and hasn't ruled out "shutting this project down."

In a statement, BNSF spokesperson Amy McBeth said the railway called 911 "within 30 minutes of the incident." She did not say when the railway contacted the tribe.

BNSF, she added, has been "working with the Fond du Lac leaders, providing regular briefings and safe access to the site since the derailment as our crews have been responding to the incident."

The company will work with the band as it develops a plan to remove coal in the river, she said.

The company has not said how much coal was spilled, although the Cloquet Area Fire District said in a Facebook post that the overturned cars dumped about 5,130 tons of coal.

The cause of the derailment is not yet known. No one was injured in the incident.

Danielle Kaeding of Wisconsin Public Radio contributed to this report