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THE NATION

Peace of Mind Still Off Track in Minot

A year after train crash spilled anhydrous ammonia in North Dakota, residents are reluctant to talk. But they don't feel safe.

January 19, 2003|Blake Nicholson | Associated Press Writer

MINOT, N.D. — Tom Lundeen watches the train rumble and clank along the track just yards from his home. His eyes follow the chemical tankers as they pass.

He wants to talk. He knows what he wants to say. He struggles not to.

Like everyone else in this small, close-knit neighborhood nestled amid trees on the outskirts of the state's fourth-largest city, Lundeen has a horrifying story to tell.

Like everyone else, he has a lawyer advising against it.

A year after a train derailment sent a cloud of toxic farm fertilizer drifting over the neighborhood and the southern part of the city, Lundeen is still trying to get his life back to normal. He doubts that he ever will.

"Every time I hear a loud noise I don't expect, I jump," he said.

*

Shortly after 1:30 a.m. on Jan. 18, 2002, a Canadian Pacific Railway train jumped the tracks on the west edge of Minot, sending 31 cars fully loaded with hazardous material crashing onto the land nearby.

Seven of the cars ruptured, spilling an estimated 290,000 gallons of anhydrous ammonia that soaked into the soil and onto the frozen Souris River, filling the air with a deadly plume.

Lundeen's neighbor died; hundreds of others were injured. Federal investigators described the derailment as catastrophic.

Today, few scars remain on the land. The piles of twisted metal are gone, along with the equipment used to dig up about 97,000 tons of contaminated soil and 25,000 square feet of river ice and haul it away.

Soil removed from the site would cover a football field 28 feet deep, said Scott Radig, an environmental engineer with the state Health Department. The ice, which was about 1 1/2 feet thick, would cover about half of a football field, he said.

A few orange barrels and temporary fences once used to restrict access to the wreck site lie half-buried in snowbanks. Trees stand out against the gray winter sky, their branches clipped off by a tanker car that flew hundreds of yards through the air before hitting a house.

But the soil around the tracks has been returned to the cropland it was before the derailment. Snow lies undisturbed atop much of the tilled landscape. A fence is strung in an area where a temporary dirt access road once stretched from a nearby highway to the tracks.

The site is quiet, with birds fluttering in the trees, a peace disturbed only by the occasional passing of a train.

But residents say the full story has yet to be told. They only wish that they could tell it.

That will have to wait until federal investigators and lawyers are through with their work. And that could take months.

*

John Bergene, a spokesman for Canadian Pacific Railway, won't discuss specifics of the derailment until a report from the National Transportation Safety Board is complete, probably in early summer.

The railroad has been focusing on the cleanup, which Bergene estimated has cost Canadian Pacific millions of dollars, and with settling thousands of medical claims.

It is also preparing for the inevitable lawsuits.

Medical experts say exposure to anhydrous ammonia can cause long-term health effects, including breathing problems, burning eyes or impaired vision, fatigue and memory loss. Disasters, they say, leave emotional wounds that sometimes never heal.

Randy Schwan, a spokesman for Minot's Trinity Hospital, said more than 1,000 people in the city of 36,500 sought help at Trinity or its clinics in the two weeks after the derailment. And people continue to seek medical treatment or psychological help.

The hospital has worked with the regional public health unit in Minot and the Environmental Protection Agency office in Denver on a study of 840 people who suspected that they had lung problems associated with the spill.

The railroad paid the $135,000 cost of the study.

The findings are yet to be made public.

Mike Miller, a Fargo attorney representing about 800 Minot residents, said there is the possibility of a class-action lawsuit that would cover everyone in the Minot area injured by the derailment and chemical leak. But the NTSB report must come first.

*

Lundeen, his wife, Nan, and two teenage children were sleeping when the train broke apart that early morning. The family spent about five hours hunkered in their basement waiting for rescuers, then three months in a hotel waiting for officials to declare their neighborhood safe enough for them to return.

Six of the 21 families in the subdivision decided that they no longer wanted to live there. Most of them, including the wife of the man who died, John Grabinger, were Lundeen's neighbors.

"They went to Minneapolis and we never saw them again," Lundeen said, pointing to an empty house.

At another home, he explained: "She was taken to a nursing home, and we haven't seen her since."

Still, there are signs of new life. One empty house has a "sold" sign in the front yard. A new home is under construction.

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