Another Oil Train Derailment – Rail Crews Call Them “Bomb Trains”
Twenty-one cars and 2 locomotives of a mile-long Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway train derailed December 30, 2013, near Casselton, North Dakota, overturning oil tanker cars that exploded and burned for more than 24 hours (Star Telegram, Asbury Park Press, Associated Press, Duluth News Tribune, Valleynewslive.com, Associated Press 2, McClatchy Interactive).
Another BNSF mile-long train carrying grain derailed first (13 cars) and some of the grain cars fell onto an adjacent track carrying the BNSF oil train. About a minute after the grain train derailed, the oil train struck one of the derailed cars filled with soybeans, causing the oil train to fall off the tracks. 20 crude oil tank cars derailed, of which 18 were punctured. Subsequent explosions and fires lasted for hours. One observer noted at least 6 separate explosions in the 2 hours following the derailments, which sent huge fireballs and clouds of hazardous toxic black smoke into the air. The fire burned so hot emergency crews didn’t even attempt to put out the blaze.
475,000 gallons of oil were spilled in the derailment, some of it burning off and some of it leaking into the soil. Investigators estimate that at least 7,300 tons of dirt contaminated with oil must be removed from the site.
Most of Casselton’s 2,400 residents followed a call from the Cass County Sheriff’s Office to evacuate the town due to health concerns about exposure to the toxic burning crude which can cause shortness of breath, coughing and itching, watery eyes. North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple visited Casselton and called it a “major catastrophe” that would prompt concern no matter where it happened.
A preliminary investigation by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) suggests the derailment occurred at a mechanical switching point between 2 tracks. The oil tanker cars that derailed and exploded and burned were the older-model DOT-111 cars which have been known for years to rupture easily in derailments and other accidents. The NTSB, Transportation Safety Board (TSB) of Canada and most rail safety experts have been recommending for many years that the DOT-111 model cars be replaced or upgraded. Unfortunately, railway companies and shippers have been inordinately slow, and in some cases unwilling, to replace this antiquated model with sturdier built and safer models.
The NTSB is also checking to see if the oil cargo was correctly identified and labelled by the shipper and BNSF. There have been many examples of mislabelled loads in the U.S. and Canada – one such example was the load that derailed July 6, 2013, spilling 5.5 million litres of crude oil that exploded and burned, killing 47 people and wiping out much of downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec.
In the wake of this and many other recent oil train derailments, rail safety experts across North America are calling on the rail industry, rail safety regulators and federal governments to get serious about improving rail safety. Sheldon Lustig, a rail safety expert who consults with local governments on accidents and hazardous materials, said recent oil train explosions underscore that not enough is being done by either industry or government. “The evidence speaks for itself. I’ve talked to some of the crews and they refer to them as ‘bomb trains’. They are worried, especially in view of the volatility of the cargo being moved.”
Following the latest rash of oil train derailments and the release last week of a report on the particularly hazardous impact of transporting North Dakota Bakken crude oil by rail, stocks of most rail companies have recently dropped (Zacks). As rail safety concerns grow across North America, forcing rail companies to start investing more of their profits into improving safety, railway stocks may well continue to drop.
See this link for more information on the risks associated with shipping oil and other hazardous goods by rail.