Air quality improving after oil train fire in North Dakota (photos)

By Dave Kolpack
Associated Press

CASSELTON, N.D. (AP) — Authorities say air quality appears to be improving after a fire from the derailment of a crude oil-carrying train in southeastern North Dakota.

The BNSF Railway train derailed Monday near Casselton, prompting the evacuation of about two-thirds of the town’s 2,400 residents.

Cass County Sheriff’s Sgt. Tara Morris says air quality is being tested by a contractor hired by the railroad. Morris said Tuesday morning there have been improvements in air quality readings but authorities weren’t yet prepared to “give the all-clear.”

The town’s water tower is about half-covered with soot. Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney says he expects a lot of soot around town. He tells The Associated Press, “wait until you see the footprints in the snow later on.”

No one was hurt in Monday’s derailment of the mile-long train that sent a great fireball and plumes of black smoke skyward about a mile from the small town of Casselton. The fire had been so intense as darkness fell that investigators couldn’t even get close enough to count the number of burning cars. Some burned through the night.

The cause of the wreck hasn’t been determined. The National Transportation Safety Board was preparing to investigate.

‘Huge fireball’

Terry Johnson, the manager of a grain dealer less than a mile from the derailment, said he heard at least six explosions in the two hours following the derailment.

“It shook our building and there was a huge fireball,” he said.

Official estimates of the extent of the blaze varied. BNSF Railway Co. said it believed about 20 cars caught fire after its oil train left the tracks about 2:10 p.m. Monday. The sheriff’s office said Monday it thought 10 cars were on fire. Officials said the cars would be allowed to burn out.

Crude by rail: Rail explosions won’t curb soaring oil shipments

Authorities haven’t yet been able to untangle exactly how the derailment happened. BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said another train carrying grain derailed first, and that this knocked several cars of the oil train off adjoining tracks.

BNSF said both trains had more than 100 cars each.

The incident will likely prompt discussion about the safety of transporting oil by cross-country rail. Fears of catastrophic derailments were particularly stoked after a train carrying crude from North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch crashed in Quebec last summer. Forty-seven people died in the ensuing fire.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Monday night it had launched a “go-team” to investigate this latest derailment. Jeff Zent, a spokesman for Gov. Jack Dalrymple, said the National Guard was on alert if needed.

Health concerns

Ryan Toop, who lives about a half-mile away, said he heard the explosions and drove in below zero temperatures until he was the equivalent of about two city blocks from the fire.

“I rolled down the window, and you could literally keep your hands warm,” Toop said.

The rail tracks run straight through Casselton, and Cass County Sheriff’s Sgt. Tara Morris said it was “a blessing (the derailment) didn’t happen within the city.”

Mayor: Town dodged a bullet in crude train explosion

A shelter was set up in Fargo and Casselton Mayor Ed McConnell said he didn’t want anyone sleeping in their vehicles as temperatures dipped to 20 below overnight.

“All the experts say it can be a hazardous situation to their health,” McConnell said. “We’re going to try to get everybody out of the town.” Crawford said only 19 people stayed at the shelter Monday night.

The North Dakota Department of Health warned that exposure to burning crude could cause shortness of breath, coughing and itching and watery eyes. It had said those in the vicinity with respiratory conditions such as asthma, bronchitis or emphysema should minimize outdoor activity.

Oil boom

North Dakota is the No. 2 oil-producing state in the U.S., trailing only Texas, and a growing amount of that is being shipped by rail. The state’s top oil regulator said earlier this month that he expected as much as 90 percent of North Dakota’s oil would be carried by train in 2014, up from the current 60 percent.

The number of crude oil carloads hauled by U.S. railroads surged from 10,840 in 2009 to a projected 400,000 this year. Despite the increase, the rate of accidents has stayed relatively steady. Railroads say 99.997 percent of hazardous materials shipments reach destinations safely.

Claims center

BNSF Railway is opening a claims center for residents of Casselton after the derailment of a crude-oil carrying train about a mile from the southeastern North Dakota town.

No one was hurt in the Monday derailment, but about two-thirds of the town’s 2,400 residents evacuated.

Rail worries: Oil trains raise concerns in small towns

The claims center is to open Thursday at the Days Inn Casselton and will be staffed from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Personal expense claim forms and also business interruption claim forms will be available. People with claims will need a driver’s license or other identification, along with proof of residency, such as mail with a name and address.

Casselton residents can call 1-866–243-4784 for information.

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