U.S. Highway 12 between Murdock and DeGraff now open

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U.S. 12 between DeGraff and Murdock remained closed Wednesday morning following the collission of a tanker truck hauling anhydrous ammonia and a BNSF train.

by Reed Anfinson, Editor, with information from the Swift County Sheriff's Office


UPDATED AS OF 12:30 p.m., Thursday, May 9

At noon Thursday the Swift County Sheriff’s Office announced that U.S. 12 between Murdock and DeGraff was now open. Yesterday authorities thought the highway could be closed through Friday or even well into Saturday.

Hazmat teams, working with the Murdock Fire Department, relieved pressure from a damaged anhydrous ammonia tank to reduce the release of the dangerous chemical into the air. Drivers are urged to be alert while driving by the accident scene since there will still be clean up work going on.

Truck driver Eric Westin, Pine City, remains in St. Cloud Hospital. His condition was last reported as “critical but stable.”

Westin was injured when the semi-tractor trailer truck hauling anhydrous ammonia he was driving was struck by a Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) train Tuesday morning.

It is now reported that five people were injured in the accident, including Westin who was airlifted by Life Link III helicopter to the St. Cloud Hospital. A second person was also transported by to the hospital in Benson and then by helicopter to St. Cloud.

Burlington Northern spokeswoman Amy McBeth says three train crewmembers suffered non-life threatening injuries. The train engineers were taken to Rice Hospital.

The accident resulted in a small leak of the volatile chemical from the tanker. Children at the Murdock Elementary School were evacuated to the Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg High School in Kerkhoven.

Residents within a two-mile radius of this accident scene at U.S. 12 and Swift County Road 85 were asked to stay away from the scene.

A chemical assessment team was called to secure a small leak of anhydrous ammonia from the truck’s tank.

“Anhydrous ammonia is a chemical made up of one part nitrogen and three parts hydrogen,” according to the University of Minnesota Extension service.

“The word ‘anhydrous’ means without water. Consequently, when anhydrous ammonia comes in contact with any moisture, the water and ammonia rapidly combine.

“Body tissues that contain a high percentage of water, such as the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract, are very easily burned,” the Extension Service reports. “Victims exposed to even small amounts of ammonia require immediate treatment with large quantities of water to minimize the damage.”

Because anhydrous ammonia boils at minus 28 degrees, it must be kept under pressure to be stored as a liquid for transportation. As a result, not only can the caustic chemical cause severe burns, but it can instantly freeze exposed skin as well.

The Murdock Fire Department along with DeGraff and Kerkhoven Fire Departments sprayed water onto the leaking anhydrous vapor, turning it into aqua-ammonia, which is liquid fertilizer. It also kept the gas from drifting across the countryside.

A 911 call was placed to the Swift County Sheriff’s Office about 8:30 a.m. Tuesday reporting the accident.

The sheriff’s office reported that the semi truck owned by Jensen Transport Inc. was leaving the Koch Industries Terminal along the south side of U.S. 12 loaded with anhydrous ammonia.  The semi truck trailer was struck by the engine of the train pushing the tractor-trailer off the road causing a rupture in the trailer, causing the anhydrous ammonia gas to leak. 

McBeth says none of the cars of the train, headed for Kansas City, Mo., derailed.

When injected into the soil, the liquid anhydrous ammonia expands into a gas and is readily absorbed in the soil moisture.

 While the properties of the anhydrous make it a valuable fertilizer for farmers, they also make it “one of the most potentially dangerous chemicals used in agriculture,” the Extension Service says. “Ammonia gas is colorless and has a sharp, penetrating odor.

“When used as an agricultural fertilizer, it is compressed into a liquid. In the liquid state, it is stored in specially designed tanks…,” it says. “If a hose ruptures or a valve is unintentionally opened, the high pressure from the tank can cause ammonia to spray into your eyes, face, and other parts of your body before you can react. When pressure is released, liquid anhydrous ammonia quickly converts to a gas.

“Similarly, in contact with your eyes, skin, or mucous membranes, ammonia will cause rapid dehydration and severe burns as it combines with the moisture of the body,” the Extension Service states.

In addition the sheriff’s office, the Minnesota State Patrol, Swift County Emergency Manager Bill McGeary, the Kerkhoven, Murdock and DeGraff fire departments, the Murdock First Responders, the Kerkhoven Rescue Squad, and a paramedic from Kandiyohi County were dispatched to the scene.

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