North Dakota town evacuated after latest oil train car explosion

Smoke and flames rise from an oil train that derailed in North Dakota.

Smoke and flames rise from an oil train that derailed in North Dakota.

(Curt Bemson / Associated Press)

When the Obama administration imposed new safety rules on oil trains last week, the railroad industry said its goal was to have zero accidents in the future.

It took only a few days to miss that difficult target.

A BNSF train hauling 109 tank cars derailed in rural North Dakota at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday, and 10 of the cars caught fire, sending flames shooting into the sky, state authorities said. No injuries were reported, but about a dozen residents of the nearby town of Heimdal, about 80 miles south of the Canadian border, were evacuated, Wells County Emergency Manager Tammy Roehrich said in an interview.

About two dozen accidents involving trains hauling crude have occurred across the U.S. since 2013, and several more in Canada. All are related to booming petroleum production from Texas to North Dakota and Alberta. Crude shipments by rail have skyrocketed, from 29,605 cars in 2010 to 493,126 in 2014, but the growth rate appears to have flattened out over the last 12 months.


As the shipments have increased, so have the accidents, as well as pressure on the government to prevent a disaster like the one in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. In July 2013, 47 people in the Canadian town died in a blaze caused by a tank train crash.

The railroad industry and U.S. regulators last year reached a voluntary agreement for a series of steps to prevent the derailments and reduce the probability of a fire if tank cars do derail.

On Friday, the Transportation Department announced a final rule on moving flammable liquids by rail that requires stronger tank cars, new braking systems, speed restrictions and better classification of the flammability of liquids carried aboard the trains. The Canadian government also implemented tougher standards.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the rules would provide “a significant improvement over the current regulations and requirements and make transporting flammable liquids safer.”

The rules are among about 30 actions the department says it has undertaken over the last two years.

Although the railroad industry had supported many of the initial steps for improved safety, it called the new braking rules a “rush to judgment” that would neither prevent accidents nor improve safety. Under those rules, trains hauling multiple tank cars that are not equipped with new electronically controlled brakes are not to exceed 30 mph.

“This decision not only threatens the operational management of the U.S. rail system, but trains moving 30 mph will compromise network capacity by at least 30%,” said Edward Hamberger, president of the American Assn. of Railroads.

That was among the harshest criticism of the new safety rules that has emerged since the Lac-Megantic disaster.

Investigators from the Federal Railroad Administration and from the National Transportation Safety Board, which will lead the post-crash inquiry, were on the way to Heimdal on Wednesday.

The BNSF tracks run about 200 feet from the nearest home in the isolated town. Thick black smoke rose out of a white-hot fire just outside town.

The derailment appeared to be fairly typical of the accidents that have occurred in Alabama, Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Cars run off the track, the tanks are pierced, and a spark ignites the highly volatile crude, which derives from either the North Dakota Bakken fields or oil sands in Alberta.

In many of those accidents, oil has contaminated rivers, streams, swamps and wetlands. A waterway, known as the Big Slough, runs north of the tracks near Heimdal and drains into the James River, about 15 miles away.

The North Dakota accident, like more than 20 before it, illustrates the difficulty of reducing rail crashes. So far, the accidents have occurred in rural areas or far enough away from people to avoid any loss of life in the U.S. But industry officials acknowledge that is partly the result of sheer luck, which may eventually give out.

The new rules will force a costly overhaul of the nation’s tank car fleet, which may also drive up the cost of transporting crude and curtail the growth rate. But experts say more needs to be done.

“These rules will take time to implement and only help reduce the severity of an accident,” said Brigham McCown, chairman of Washington-based Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure, and former chief of the agency that sets tank car safety standards.

“The new train car standard will ultimately make train cars more robust, but we must stop fixating on the train car and address the rail defects causing the accidents,” McCown said. “The status quo is unacceptable.”

Under federal law, major railroads have no choice in whether to haul crude.

Environmental groups have called for a national moratorium on crude rail shipments. They also are fighting to block hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, and construction of refineries and mining of oil sands in northern Canada. It is all part of a campaign against fossil fuels that contribute to global warming.

“The oil train rules released by the administration on Friday are obsolete before the ink is even dry,” said Todd Paglia, executive director of ForestEthics. “The new rules would not have prevented any of the first four fiery accidents in February and March, and they likely would not have prevented this one either.”