GALENA, Ill. — The two rail cars that split open and burst into flames during a western Illinois oil train derailment were retrofitted with protective shields to meet a higher safety standard than federal law requires, the railroad said.
Thursday’s accident in a rural area south of the city of Galena is the latest failure of the safer tank car model and raises more concerns that even tougher requirements are needed.
Six of the BNSF Railway train’s 105 cars derailed in an area where the Galena River meets the Mississippi. Two of those cars burst into flames. No injuries have been reported.
The company said in a news release that the train’s tank cars were a newer model known as the 1232, which was designed during safety upgrades voluntarily adopted by the industry four years ago in hopes of keeping cars from rupturing during derailments. But 1232 standard cars involved in three other accidents have split open in the past year, leading some to call for tougher requirements.
Those other accidents included one last month in West Virginia in which a train carrying 3 million gallons of North Dakota crude derailed, shooting fireballs into the sky, leaking oil into a waterway and burning down a house. The home’s owner was treated for smoke inhalation, but no one else was injured.
Thursday’s accident in Illinois led local officials to announce a voluntary evacuation of an area within 1 mile because of the presence of a propane tank near the derailment. Only a family of two agreed to leave their home, Galena City Administrator Mark Moran said Thursday.
The train had 103 cars loaded with crude oil, along with two buffer cars loaded with sand, according to company spokesman Andy Williams. The cause of the derailment hasn’t been determined.
The accident occurred 3 miles south of Galena in a wooded and hilly area that is a major tourist attraction and the home of former President Ulysses S. Grant.
The Jo Daviess County Sheriff’s Department confirmed the train was transporting oil from the Northern Plains’ Bakken region.
Firefighters could only access the derailment site by a bike path, said Galena Assistant Fire Chief Bob Conley. They attempted to fight the fire but had to pull back for safety reasons and were allowing the fire to burn itself out, Conley said.
The Federal Railroad Administration was sending investigators. BNSF said it was taken steps to protect the nearby waterways from contamination.
Recent derailments have increased public concern about the safety of shipping crude by train. According to the Association of American Railroads, oil shipments by rail jumped from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 500,000 in 2014, driven by a boom in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota and Montana, where pipeline limitations force 70 percent of the crude to move by rail.
Since 2008, oil train derailments in the U.S. and Canada have caused 70,000-gallon tank cars to break open and ignite on multiple occasions, resulting in huge fires.
The wrecks have intensified pressure on the administration of President Barack Obama to approve tougher standards for railroads and tank cars, despite industry complaints that it could cost billions and slow freight deliveries.
Oil industry officials had been opposed to further upgrading the 1232 cars because of costs. But late last year they changed their position and joined with the railway industry to support some upgrades, although they asked for time to make the improvements.