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BNSF: Coal train derailment caused by broken wheel

Backhoes line up to scoop up the piles of coal that spilled out of the train cars when they derailed Feb. 16 onto the banks and into the St. Louis River north of Cloquet. The majority of the train cars were pulled out of the river by Monday evening. file / Pine Journal

The February derailment of a coal train that dumped more than 4,000 tons of coal on the Fond du Lac Reservation was caused by a broken wheel, BNSF Railways said.

BNSF spokesperson Amy McBeth said the company determined the cause of the Feb. 16 derailment through its own investigation and reported the findings to the Federal Railroad Administration.

The Federal Railroad Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board can choose which incidents to investigate and did not investigate the February derailment, McBeth said.

"BNSF conducts a thorough review of every incident because we want to understand what happened and why, and work to prevent it from happening in the future," McBeth said.

The BNSF train was made up of 121 loaded coal cars and three locomotives, 40 coal cars derailed at about 11:30 a.m. several miles north of Cloquet and along the St. Louis River, sending at least 4,000 tons of coal along the track and onto and into the frozen St. Louis River.

Several days after the derailment, officials from the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and nearby emergency agencies said BNSF failed to notify them of the derailment for hours and restricted access to the site.

All recoverable coal was removed by late March. On Thursday, McBeth said any coal remaining on site will be removed as weather allows.

"About 99 percent of the coal has been removed, with just a very small amount remaining," McBeth said. "As weather allows the little coal left will be removed and we'll be seeding the area to restore it to the pre-incident condition."

A Fond du Lac spokesperson did not immediately respond to the News Tribune on Thursday.

The coal was heading to Minnesota Power's Boswell Energy Center, the company's only operating coal-fired power plant, from its source in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming.

Jimmy Lovrien

Jimmy Lovrien is a reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. He spent the summer of 2015 as an intern for the Duluth News Tribune and was hired full time in October 2017 as a reporter for the Weekly Observer. He also reported for the Lake County News-Chronicle in 2017-18. Lovrien grew up in Alexandria, Minn., but moved to Duluth in 2013 to attend The College of St. Scholastica. Lovrien graduated from St. Scholastica in 2017 with a bachelor's degree in English and history. He also spent a summer studying journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.

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