Railroad to pay $625,000 in 2008 derailment that caused oil spill in Mississippi River

A railroad has agreed to pay $625,000 to settle allegations that it failed to adequately clean up a 2008 oil spill that damaged the shoreline and aquatic life in the Mississippi River between Iowa and Wisconsin.

The Dakota Minnesota and Eastern Railroad, a subsidiary of Canadian Pacific, would make the payment without admitting wrongdoing to resolve a civil complaint filed Tuesday by the state of Iowa and the U.S. government. The settlement, known as a consent decree, would cover the cost of assessing damage and pay for restoration activities. It's expected to go into effect after a 30-day public comment period.

The case stems from a derailment that happened July 9, 2008, when a boulder dislodged by heavy rains tore up a section of the track on the river near Guttenberg, Iowa. Four diesel locomotives crashed into the river and were submerged and leaked oil for several days. Two workers suffered minor injuries.

The complaint alleges that those engines leaked 4,400 gallons of diesel oil and other petroleum products, causing floating slicks of oil and oil sheen along a 10-mile stretch. The area of the river, known as the Bluff Slough, is across from Cassville, Wisconsin.

Few birds or fish died, but other slower-moving aquatic life that lived in or near shore habitats were affected by the floating oil. The spill, which came as the river was at flood stage, resulted in the loss of mussels that are considered endangered and threatened species and damage to mayflies, a rare mudpuppy and a water snake, the complaint says.

Much of the oil on the shoreline wasn't cleaned up, while some of it stuck to sediments that flowed downstream in the high and turbulent waters, the complaint said.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources spokesman Kevin Baskins said the restoration work will include re-establishing mussel beds that were disturbed when the company built a platform to remove the locomotives. A damaged parking lot will also be repaired.

"We're glad to have the opportunity to restore a sensitive area of the river," he said. "Anytime we can make an effort to increase mussel survival and production, it's something that's real positive for the ecosystem as a whole."

After the derailment, state officials worried that the railroad took too long to remove the engines from the river and to respond to the environmental threat they posed.

Workers deployed booms to contain the discharged oil, used pads to absorb floating oil, removed oiled vegetation and eventually re-railed the locomotives and grain cars, the complaint said. However, the response "was not able to remediate the entire area affected by the discharge incident" and didn't address oil that sank in the river. The complaint alleged a violation of the Oil Pollution Act.

Canadian Pacific spokesman Andy Cummings called the derailment an "unusual incident," saying the company is pleased to have the complaint resolved.

The consent decree says the payment would avoid complicated litigation and expedite restoration work. Government lawyers can withdraw the settlement if public comments "disclose facts or considerations" that show it to be inadequate.

Wally Taylor, a Cedar Rapids environmental attorney, said he will consider filing a comment on behalf of the Sierra Club.

"It sounds like it's not nearly enough," he said of the settlement. "I suspect the company probably resisted pretty strongly but that the government didn't want to really take them to court."