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Fond du Lac Band: No notification of derailment until hours after incident

CLOQUET (UPDATE, 5:37 p.m) — The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa is sounding off after a train derailed and spilled more than 5,000 tons of coal on its reservation this past weekend.

The derailment happened around 11:30 a.m. on Saturday near Pine Island on the St. Louis River.

Tribal representatives say that it happened on tribal land, where BNSF has an easement.

At a news conference on Tuesday morning, Fond du Lac Tribal Chairman Kevin DuPuis says the band wasn’t notified about the BNSF train derailment until hours after it happened and says they also haven’t received any updates on the ongoing investigation.

DuPuis says the tribe wasn’t notified of the derailment until well after it happened at 11:30 in the morning.

“The initial call time we have is 1:30 in the afternoon on Saturday. Myself as Chief of police, and as our emergency management division, they did not get the notification until after 5 p.m. So, there’s a lot of lost time that occurred in-between those hours,” said Chief Herb Fineday, of the FDL Police Department.

DuPuis said the band also has an issue with the coal, and any environmental effects it could have.

“We have a big problem with the coal dust, and what it does, not just with the ice, but what it does with the snow. And the runoff–we have natural springs that are there, that are going to be affecting fresh water,” said DuPuis.

In addition, they still aren’t aware of exactly how much coal went into the water.

“We have issues with the coal dust – what is the coal dust going to do in the springtime, what is the coal going to do in the springtime.  As most of you all know, we have a very aggressive sturgeon reintroduction to the river.  This is going to affect spawning in certain areas of the river,” said Dupuis.

Dupuis says tribal experts haven’t been able to fully evaluate the scene.

“We have been given draw back the entire time. And we understand they are in the cleanup process under the easement, we understand that. But we also need to get there to take a look at it.”

As for a cause of the derailment, Depuis says they haven’t been given an official cause, but were told it had “something to do with the wheels”.

At this time it is unclear why type of coal the train was carrying, despite KBJR having asked a BNSF spokesperson the question multiple times. All we have been told is that it was coming from the Wyoming Powder River Basin, where according to the BNSF website, they mine for thermal coal.

They type of coal is most commonly used for heat and power generation.

BNSF issued the following statement on Tuesday:

“BNSF Railway made initial 911 notification of the derailment within 30 minutes of the incident occurring Saturday and then several subsequent communications occurred throughout the day. We’ve 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. As work continues there to remove the derailed cars and the spilled coal, we will continue these efforts. We’ll be assessing the quickest and safest way to remove coal in the river and will be working with the Fond du Lac officials on that plan as it is developed. ” 

*Editors note. We have updated this story to include the statement from BNSF.  This story initially said, “KBJR 6 has reached out to BNSF for comment, however, we have yet to hear back,” as it was published before their statement was sent.

10:30 a.m. –The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Tribal Chairman plans to give an update at 11 a.m. Tuesday after a BNSF train derailed Saturday and spilled nearly 5,000 tons of coal north of Cloquet.

According to a Facebook post from the Cloquet Area Fire District, the incident happened just north of Pine Island on the St. Louis River. Officials say six of the 38 derailed cars were on the ice. While the rail track is back open, the clean-up process is still ongoing.

Chairman Kevin DuPuis will provide a “boots-on-the-ground update” on the situation. According to a press release, he also plans to address “inaccurate reports previously circulated from outside sources.”

Other Fond du Lac Emergency Management team leads will also be on hand to answer questions.

According to Lucie Amundsen, a spokesperson for The Minnesota Pollution Control, the agency is no longer on the scene.

We will be live streaming the update online and our Facebook page at 11 a.m.

Briggs LeSavage

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