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Canadian Pacific locomotives sit in a rail yard in Montreal in this file photo

Ryan Remiorz/THE CANADIAN PRESS

A Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. train spilled more than 20,000 gallons of oil onto frozen ground in northwest Minnesota on Wednesday, at a time when the safety of transporting crude by rail is increasingly in the spotlight.

After 14 cars of a 94-car train derailed near the town of Parkers Prairie, Minn., nearly the entire contents of one car drained out onto both sides of the tracks. Two other cars were leaking smaller amounts of oil, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The rail cars carry 26,000 gallons each, "and the one tanker we feel has probably leaked its entire capacity, and then two other tankers are leaking to a lesser extent," said pollution control agency spokesman Dan Olson.

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The cause of the derailment was unknown. Rail crews and investigators arrived quickly and contained the damage. Since spring has been late to arrive in the region, the field on one side of the track and ditch on the other are still covered in snow and ice. So the pollution agency anticipates relatively little environmental damage.

"We've determined there really isn't an environment threat to either the surface water downstream of the ditch, or to groundwater under the site, as it's all still frozen. So it's all contained, it's not migrating downstream or into the soil," Mr. Olson said.

Crews began mopping up the spill shortly after the accident, and the initial cleanup is expected to continue into Thursday. Once that's completed, the agency will ask Canadian Pacific to excavate to determine if any oil seeped into the soil.

"Usually what happens is that it's the responsibility of the railroad to work with contractors to get it all cleaned up," Mr. Olson said.

CP Rail confirmed the details of the spill.

Perhaps not as easily mopped up will be negative impressions caused by the accident, especially while debate looms on transcontinental pipelines and whether crude-by-rail is environmentally safer.

"Once you have any kind of vehicles moving, every once and a while you're going to have an accident. That's just a reality, and you do what you can to minimize it. And railways do," said Bob Ballantyne, chairman of the Coalition of Rail Shippers.

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"They'll be concerned about the optics and rightly so. [But] I wouldn't see this as being a major catastrophe from any point of view, from an environmental point of view or from a marketing and communications point of view," he added.

Mr. Ballantyne also compared the risks to that of transporting hazardous chemicals by rail, which can be a much more serious, even deadly, health hazard. The chemical industry in Canada has a program known as Responsible Care, which closely links transportation regulators, the railways and chemical companies to minimize any dangers. That program could serve as a model for other industries, he noted.

"It's not a confrontational relationship. It's very collaborative on the part of all of them, and it works pretty well," Mr. Ballantyne said. By comparison, in the rail industry he said there is little of that level of debate about potential risks even though railways are keen to minimize negative publicity.

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