Rail explosion, evacuation worry North Dakota mayor

The mayor of Casselton, North Dakota is calling for stricter safety standards for rail companies transporting crude oil, following Monday's derailment and massive explosions a few hundred metres west of his community.

State to move 90% of its oil by rail this year

A fireball goes up at the site of an oil train derailment in Casselton, N.D. The train carrying crude oil derailed near Casselton Monday afternoon. Several explosions were reported as some cars on the 1.6 kilometre-long train caught fire. (Bruce CrummyAssociated Press)

A train derailment and fire Monday has one North Dakota mayor pressing lawmakers for tighter safety standards when shipping oil.

Officials at BNSF Railway Company estimated about 20 cars caught fire west of Casselton, N.D. after a train hauling grain derailed, colliding with a train carrying oil about 2:10 p.m. CST. 

The mayor of the bedroom community west of Fargo, N.D. calls it a wake-up call.

"It was very hot and, of course, when the cars cooked off it was a loud explosion. You'd see a fireball, a mushroom type cloud up almost in the air a couple of hundred feet," Ed McConnell, the mayor of Casselton, said. "It was unbelievable, the power of it."

"It was close"

As the fire burned, blasts continued to rock the community throughout the day. Heavy smoke led to a mandatory evacuation order, forcing 2,300 residents from their homes.

"It was close. It was right on the west edge of our town," McConnell said. "Thank God it wasn't close to any populated area."

Ed McConnell, mayor of Casselton, wants rail companies to switch to using double-hulled oil tankers. With several trains loaded with oil running through his community daily, McConnell is concerned another crash could be fatal. (City of Casselton)

The fire had been so intense as darkness fell that investigators couldn't get close enough to count the number of burning cars.

McConnell described his town as a community with a mix of professionals and working-class families. He said most residents are attracted to the "small town atmosphere" in Casselton.

"I guess we hadn't woke up to the fact of what we were dealing with here, until we really saw what the power of the stuff was," McConnell said. 

Residents return home

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash and subsequent fire. Residents were allowed to return to their homes on New Year's Eve, a day after they were ordered out.

A train hauling oil from North Dakota east crashed in the middle of Lac-Mégantic, Que. in June, killing 47 people.

McConnell said safety has to be a bigger priority for companies shipping oil.

"I would do everything humanly possible to ensure the rails are in tip-top shape and the equipment is all in immaculate condition," McConnell said.

He urged lawmakers in Saskatchewan to take similar precautions.

90% of state's oil to be shipped by rail

Although he's worried, McConnell conceded there's not much he can do to stop the oil tankers.

In 2014, state regulators estimate 90 per cent of North Dakota's oil will be shipped out of the state by rail. That's an increase from 60 per cent in the past.

"It's such a big deal I don't know how any individual or even a governmental group could ever put any kind of a moratorium on it," McConnell said. "I guess that wouldn't be something that I think is even practical to think about."

"Now we're going to have some conversations with people. They say there are newer cars that are safer and perhaps the railroad is going to have to change their protocol completely."

Canadian Press


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