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Fond du Lac, Cloquet first responders say they weren’t notified of derailment until hours later; demand access to site

The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and area emergency agencies said BNSF Railways waited hours to notify them about Saturday's 40-car coal train derailment on the St. Louis River north of Cloquet and on the Fond du Lac Reservation.

Sean Copeland, attorney for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, talks at Tuesday’s news conference about Saturday’s derailment of part of a BNSF Railways coal train along the St. Louis Rive. Band Chairman Kevin DuPuis (background, left) expressed frustration with the lack of communication and cooperation he says the band has received from BNSF. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com
Sean Copeland, attorney for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, talks at Tuesday’s news conference about Saturday’s derailment of part of a BNSF Railways coal train along the St. Louis Rive. Band Chairman Kevin DuPuis (background, left) expressed frustration with the lack of communication and cooperation he says the band has received from BNSF. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com
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The Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and area emergency agencies said BNSF Railways waited hours to notify them about Saturday’s 40-car coal train derailment on the St. Louis River north of Cloquet and on the Fond du Lac Reservation.

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Fond du Lac Chief of Police Herb Fineday talks during Tuesday’s news conference. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

The agencies are also demanding BNSF grant them access to the scene so they can oversee emergency and environmental procedures as railway crews clean up overturned cars and at least 4,000 tons of spilled coal.

“We have jurisdiction of this. It’s within our rights. It’s within our lands. We are the lead agency and we should have been contacted. There should have been collaboration with us to ensure that the cleanup is done the right way within the eyes of the Band,” Tribal Chairman Kevin Dupuis said at a press conference Tuesday morning in the Fond du Lac Resource Management and Tribal Court Building in Cloquet.

Unless BNSF agrees to the “right approach” and “complete collaboration” with Fond du Lac, Dupuis said, adding that the band could stop BNSF’s work until environmental, land and timber assessments are complete.

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“I believe there's several options that can go with this and one of them may come to the point of completely shutting this project down to ensure that the right things are taken care of it,” Dupuis said.

Although BNSF has an easement through the reservation, tribal attorney Sean Copeland said the easement, written by Congress in 1888, ultimately gives the Fond du Lac authority over the land.

“Congress specifically said that it had to be operated with due regard to the rights of Indians, and we’re concerned that’s not being done here,” Copeland said.

In an emailed statement to the News Tribune on Tuesday, BNSF spokesperson Amy McBeth said the company has been working with and updating the agencies.

“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,” McBeth said. “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.”

Notification and safety concerns At about 11:30 a.m. Saturday, 40 coal cars from a 121-car and three-engine train derailed, sending coal and cars onto and into the frozen St. Louis River. No one was injured.

But BNSF Railways waited until 1:30 p.m. to report the derailment to 911, according to Fond du Lac Band Chief of Police Herb Fineday.
During that call, the railway reported no injuries and did not request any assistance, Fineday said.

Emergency agencies and the Band weren’t notified until 5 p.m. Saturday, Fineday and Cloquet Area Fire District Chief Kevin Schroeder said Tuesday morning.
“There's a lot of lost time that occurred in between those hours of response,” Fineday said.

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Residents listen to a speaker during Tuesday’s news conference. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

But BNSF contended that timeline.

“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,” McBeth said.

Since Saturday, local emergency responders and the Band still haven’t had full access to the site.

Schroeder added that he’s concerned about the safety of 30 people working on the scene with heavy equipment.

“As of this moment right now, we still do not know how we would have access to an injury or evacuate an injured person from the site,” Schroeder said. “So from the emergency response side, we've been struggling with that for the last three days.”

Environmental concerns Fond du Lac officials said they were concerned about the spilled coal releasing heavy metals into the St. Louis River and pieces of coal and coal dust covering fish spawning areas in the river.

The Band has asked to lead the cleanup efforts.

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“The lack of consideration or collaboration when the incident began leaves us kind of guessing what they're going to do and and how they're going to respond and clean the area up,” said Wayne Dupuis, Fond du Lac Band environmental program manager. “So we’re concerned about that.”

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A train of empty cars passes the scene of Saturday’s derailment on Monday afternoon. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

But the Band wants to lead the cleanup.

“We didn't want them to deal with anything on the river side of that because that's the biggest environmental impact area,” Kevin Dupuis said.

But when Kevin Dupuis went to the derailment site early Sunday morning, BNSF had already started work.

“They were already moving equipment, they were already scraping the bank, they were pulling coal,” Kevin Dupuis said.

BNSF said its crews are trying to remove the coal as fast as they can.

“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,” McBeth said.

The train was carrying a shipment of coal from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming to Minnesota Power’s Boswell Energy Center when it derailed Saturday.

The cause of the derailment remains under investigation.

Jimmy Lovrien covers energy, mining and the 8th Congressional District for the Duluth News Tribune. He can be reached at jlovrien@duluthnews.com or 218-723-5332.
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