The recently approved merger between rail lines Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern will connect Canadian oil fields with refiners in the Gulf and in the process send more hazardous materials, mostly oil products, through the CP lines that run along the upper Mississippi River, including the Twin Cities of Minnesota. (Brian Peterson / Minneapolis Star Tribune)
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A recently completed merger between two of the country’s top-tier rail lines will send more trains along the upper Mississippi River — and in some areas, thousands more car loads of hazardous materials.

The combination of Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern was approved by the Surface Transportation Board in March. The new company will combine 20,350 miles of rail lines, including about 8,600 in the United States, and create for the first time a single rail carrier that stretches from Canada to Mexico. The three biggest categories of carloads the merger is expected to siphon away from other rail lines include cars and car parts; energy, chemicals and plastics; and grain.

The river is already a de facto rail corridor with track on both sides in some areas, some 1,100miles of rail in total from Minneapolis to the confluence with the Ohio River, according to the Upper Mississippi River Basin Association (UMRBA). But the combination also adds more pressure on planners and emergency responders who react to derailments and cargo spills, particularly along the Mississippi, at a time when national attention to rail disasters has risen sharply.

A February derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, sent a plume of chemically-laden gas over the small community after a train carrying vinyl chloride came off the tracks and responders decided to burn the cargo to avoid an explosion.

More recently, a BNSF train derailed along the Mississippi River on April 27, near De Soto, Wisconsin. Two cars floated down the river, but no material spilled from them and the cleanup on land finished a few days later, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported.

The merger will bring tens of thousands more carloads per year of hazardous materials along the river as it flows between Minnesota and Wisconsin, where cleaning up contaminants before they flow downstream presents an additional challenge.

According to projections in environmental review documents for the combination of Canadian Pacific and Kansas City Southern, carloads will increase by 41,014 on one rail segment between the Twin Cities and the bank opposite of La Crosse, Wisconsin.  

A spokesman for the combined rail line wrote in an email that he could not describe exactly what hazardous material would be in the additional carloads. The company is a common carrier, meaning it can’t refuse to transport materials if it receives a reasonable request.

The newly formed Canadian Pacific Kansas City creates a direct connection between Canadian oil producers and refiners along the Gulf of Mexico. The environmental review for the acquisition notes that Canadian Pacific already transports crude oil, the oil product bitumen and liquefied petroleum gas into the United States from Alberta, Canada; Kansas City’s lines are connected to chemical companies along the Gulf.

There’s particular concern for the routes that hug the upper Mississippi, roughly 360 miles from Minneapolis to Muscatine, Iowa, according to UMBRA, which helps coordinate planning for hazardous spills. The challenges along the river are more complex, as a springtime flood could quickly whisk contaminants to a broad area and where responders have to act quickly to protect human infrastructure like drinking water intakes and natural resources like mussel beds.

Mark Ellis, who directs a hazardous spills planning group for UMBRA, said the merger and increased traffic is “concerning simply because of the increased hazards” that come with more trains. 

Canadian Pacific and BNSF, the other main owner of rail lines along the upper river, “have both done a lot to train and equip local responders in recent years, but derailments tend to be large releases that quickly outpace local capabilities,” Ellis added.

Along some parts of the river, Canadian Pacific’s lines could see 14 more trains per day, once the two companies’ integration is complete in 2027. On the rail lines along the river in Minnesota, it estimated between three and six more freight trains a day, depending on the segment.

Ryan Ricci, the emergency readiness manager for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said there are 66 caches of equipment like booms, boats and absorbent pads stashed along the river in Minnesota in case of emergency.

The rail companies respond to their own spills, and often lead spill remediation, Ricci said. He added that the lines respond “very effectively with a very robust network of contractors who are extremely qualified.”

But he acknowledged that more trains overall raises the possibility of more derailments.

In its environmental review of the project, the Surface Transportation Board projected that on lines where more hazardous material would be shipped, “12.88 releases would occur per year under the Proposed Acquisition, compared to 10.36 releases” without a merger. It also predicts that “majority of releases that would occur would be minor and would not have the potential to result in environmental impacts, injuries or fatalities.”

Canadian Pacific had the lowest accident rate among top-tier “Class 1” rail companies in the United States. According to statistics from the Federal Railroad Administration, it had eight accidents in 2022, or a rate of just under one accident per million miles. It is not totally without accidents, however; in March, one of the company’s trains derailed in rural North Dakota, 60 miles southwest of Fargo, and spilled asphalt and ethylene glycol, a chemical used in antifreeze, the Associated Press reported. Nobody was injured.

Kansas City Southern, whose routes spread from Kansas City south to the Gulf and into Mexico, had 24 accidents, or a rate of 2.25 per million miles.

Merger documents tout that the merger will remove some 64,000 trucks from the road in North America, and save carbon emissions in the process.

There are fewer train derailments including hazardous materials every year in the US than truck accidents; just 20 rail accidents released hazardous materials across the country in 2020 according to the Federal Railroad Administration. There were 525 comparable large truck crashes with releases in 2020, including releases of gasoline or motor oil, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

But Ricci said that in his experience in Minnesota, rail spills may be rarer, but they can be more severe.

One of the worst in recent memory, he said, happened in Albert Lea in south-central Minnesota in 2021, when 40,000 gallons of hydrochloric acid spilled.

As to whether rail or trucks are safer for hazardous cargo, “I don’t know that we would even begin to speak to that,” Ricci said. “I think the sensitivity around rail is at an all-time high.”

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Chloe Johnson / Minneapolis Star Tribune

Chloe Johnson covers the environment for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, and is part of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, a collaborative reporting network across the Basin. Previously, Johnson reported on the environment, climate change and the people adapting to a warmer planet for The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina. She started her career at The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and holds a journalism degree from American University. Her work has been recognized by the Scripps Howard Foundation and the Society for Features Journalism, and she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Johnson is always looking for a good excuse to hop on a boat.