ND removes tainted soil

BY PJ HELLER | MINOT, ND | January 31, 2002

More than 5,000 tons of contaminated soil have been removed from the site where a Canadian Pacific train derailed near Minot, ND, releasing up to 240,000 gallons of anhydrous ammonia into the air and ground.

Officials Thursday continued to monitor water and air quality in the area. Cleanup efforts were expected to continue for several more days, they said. "At the present time, there is absolutely no danger," said Melvin Grilley, director of the Northern Plains United Conference of Christ disaster response program. "But I can't say what will happen down the road."

Officials have been monitoring air and water quality in the area since the Jan. 18 derailment. The accident left one person dead and sent 400 others to the hospital. Thirty-two people were admitted and later released. On Thursday, nearly two weeks after 21 cars of the 112-car CP train derailed, some 40 homes in the Tierrecita Vallejo remained evacuated, Grilley reported.

Residents were staying in area motels or with friends and family, he said. No date was given as to when they could return to their homes. Police continued to post roadblocks to prevent access to the contaminated area, which Grilley said covered about a 2-square-mile area.

On Wednesday, spiritual counseling began being offered by six area churches. People can call to schedule an appointment to speak with a counselor. United Church of Christ, Baptist, Episcopal, Catholic and two United Methodist churches were participating in the program coordinated by Grilley.

"We emphasize that this is not to take the place of mental health counseling," he said. He said that depending on the response, other faith-based programs could be planned. "We're going to wait and see what happens from this," Grilley said. "If we receive a tremendous response, I'll look at something else. At the present time there's nothing definite planned."

Officials said that 240,000 gallons of anhydrous ammonia -- an ingredient commonly used in fertilizer -- were spilled into the air and ground by eight tank cars involved in the derailment. Approximately 100,000 gallons to 150,000 gallons seeped into the ground. That contaminated soil is being trucked to a landfill near Sawyer.

Grilley said tests showed the contamination level at 0.6 parts per million. Dangerous levels would be 5 parts per million, he said.

Officials have drilled between 10 and 15 wells about 20 feet deep to monitor water quality levels. Private wells tend to be at least 30 feet deep. Ice and snow cover on the Souris River was contaminated, Grilley reported, but no contamination was found in water samples taken downstream.

Minot officials said the city was drawing water from the Sundre Aquifer and was not using water from the Souris River or from a well located about a mile from the derailment site. Anhydrous ammonia is a particularly noxious gas. It irritates the respiratory system and causes a chemical burn if it comes into contact with skin. It freezes clothing to the body and sucks moisture from the eyes.

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