North Dakota town evacuated after oil train derailment

May 6, 2015 4:16 PM by CBS/AP, Photo: Jennifer Willis / MGN

BISMARCK, N.D. -- An oil train derailed and caught fire early Wednesday in a rural area of central North Dakota, prompting the evacuation of a nearby town where about 20 people live.

No injuries were reported in the accident about 7:30 a.m. near Heimdal, about 115 miles northeast of Bismarck. Ten tanker cars on the BNSF Railway train caught fire, creating thick black smoke, state Emergency Services spokeswoman Cecily Fong said.

Firefighters from four area communities responded, Fong said. Regional Hazmat units from Grand Forks and Devil's Lake are also on scene, CBS affiliate KXMB reports.

Ten investigators from the Federal Railroad Administration were traveling to the area, said spokesman Kevin Thompson. The National Transportation Safety Board also was sending a team.

The Environmental Protection Agency was sending someone to gauge any contamination to waterways in the vicinity, spokesman Rich Mylott said. The rail line through Heimdal runs next to an intermittent waterway known as the Big Slough, which drains into the James River about 15 miles downstream near Bremen, North Dakota.

There were preliminary indications that some oil from the derailed cars got into Big Slough, but it will be difficult to verify until the fire dies down and officials can get closer to the scene, State Environmental Health Chief Dave Glatt said. In a similar incident outside Casselton in December 2013, almost all of the spilled oil was consumed in the fire, he said.

The Health Department was monitoring air quality and advising people not to breathe in the smoke. The danger from the smoke is mainly the particles it contains such as ash, not toxic chemicals, Glatt said.

The train had 109 cars, 107 with crude oil and two buffer cars between the tankers and engine that were loaded with sand, BNSF said. It was unclear how many derailed. There was no immediate word on the cause or on the source of the oil the train was carrying. A statement from BNSF did not cite the source, and officials did not immediately return calls.

Curt Bemson, a 68-year-old retired sheriff, said he was getting ready for the day when the explosion outside town rattled his house. With the large number of oil trains that come through the community each day, he figured that was the cause.

"I got in my car, still in my underwear, had shaving cream on my face, and drove down there," he said.

After seeing about half a dozen derailed cars on fire he alerted authorities, who he said took about half an hour to get to the rural area. Rainfall likely stopped the fire from spreading to nearby grassland in the meantime, he said.

"It could have been a lot more devastating had it been dry," he said.

The rain might have also helped wash some of the particles out of the smoke, though it might keep the plume closer to the ground and more likely to be encountered by people, Glatt said.

Since 2006, the U.S. and Canada have seen at least 24 oil train accidents involving a fire, derailment or significant amount of fuel spilled, according to federal accident records reviewed by the AP. The derailment Wednesday was the fifth this year and comes less than a week after the Department of Transportation announced a rule to toughen construction standards for tens of thousands of tank cars that haul oil and other flammable liquids.

FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg said in a statement that the accident was "yet another reminder" of the need for changes that have been resisted by the oil industry, which says it will take years to get the unsafe tank cars replaced or off the tracks.

BNSF said the tank cars that derailed were constructed under a 2011 voluntary rail industry standard intended to make them tougher than older cars that were long known to pose a safety risk. But the new cars have proved equally dangerous. The five major oil train accidents so far this year in the U.S. and Canada all involved the newer cars, each of which can hold about 30,000 gallons of fuel.

Roughly 22,000 of the cars are in service hauling crude oil and must be retrofitted or replaced by 2020 under the new federal rule. Cars hauling ethanol, another fuel involved in multiple accidents, have a longer timeline for replacement.

It was not immediately known if the oil had been processed under the state's new rules that were meant to reduce the volatility of North Dakota crude by stripping out gases that can easily ignite, Thompson said. North Dakota officials have said the rules would make the volatility of treated oil comparable to gasoline. Critics have said the state's requirements were too lax and insufficient to prevent major fires.

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