Grand Forks responders say precautions in place for major derailment
When the fiery, explosive train derailment near Casselton, N.D., hit national news last month, it left a question in many Grand Forks residents’ minds:
What would we do if it happened here?
A major derailment is unlikely, especially because trains drive much slower while in towns than in rural areas, said Jim Campbell, emergency manager for the city and Grand Forks County.
But with train tracks running straight through Grand Forks — near homes and businesses — it’s possible.
In the accident near Casselton, more than 400,000 gallons of oil spilled, accompanied by a massive explosion that could be seen from miles away.
And nothing can really stop that initial damage in a catastrophic disaster, said Battalion Chief Mike Sandry, of the Grand Forks Fire Department.
But emergency responders can be prepared for their reaction.
“We are prepared for it,” Sandry said. It’s a challenge responding to catastrophic events, he said, but local and regional agencies have trained for train derailments, along with other disasters.
If a train derailed in Grand Forks, the fire department and other emergency agencies would first quickly decide if there needs to be an initial evacuation, Sandry said.
In the event of an evacuation, the Grand Forks County 911 dispatch center would contact all landlines in the evacuation area and anyone signed up for the county’s CodeRed emergency notification system for cellphones and landlines, said Becky Ault, 911 director. The CodeRed system used here is the same one that was used in the Casselton evacuation, she said.
A shelter for those evacuated from their homes would most likely be in the Alerus Center, because of its size, Campbell said. American Red Cross would provide food, cots and other resources to people evacuated, he said.
Emergency responders would also quickly assess the scene to decide whether it’s safe for responders to go in, Sandry said. “You don’t want to rush in too fast, that’s how people get killed,” he said.
“Our primary concern is the safety of responders and the safety of the public,” Sandry said.
If it’s safe, responders would go in to contain the scene and mitigate further damage, Sandry said. In an oil train incident, that could mean putting out fire and containing the oil spill.
If something spilled in a train derailment, the fire department’s hazardous materials specialists would determine what was spilled and how far its effects may reach, possibly through the air, said Captain Jeff Laskowske of the fire department.
As conditions change, such as a wind shift or a fire starting, emergency workers would adjust their response, possibly evacuating more people or blocking off a larger area, Sandry said.
“As you assess more and learn more, you might have to evacuate more,” he said. “It’s a continual assessment of the scene as conditions may change.”
BNSF Railway would be responsible for cleaning up a hazardous spill or any accident and would be overseen by the fire department, Campbell said.
In a massive emergency like a train derailment, all agencies would likely respond, including the fire department, Grand Forks Police Department, Altru Ambulance, UND police, and possibly even North Dakota Highway Patrol, U.S. Border Patrol, Grand Forks County Sheriff’s Office and fire departments from other towns, if needed, Sandry said.
If a train derailed elsewhere in the county, rural fire departments and sheriff’s offices have response plans similar to the city of Grand Forks, Campbell said. The Grand Forks Fire Department is the regional hazardous materials team and responds throughout the county, he said.
“If it was a life-threatening situation, the first responders (of city agencies) with the mayor’s authorization could respond outside of the city,” Campbell said. The last time that happened was in the 1980s, he said.
Sandry added that there are also state resources available to assist in emergencies.
At Tuesday’s Grand Forks City Council meeting, council member Tyrone Grandstrand raised the question: What would happen if a train derailment like Casselton’s happened here?
In an interview, Grandstrand said he has had some constituents ask him about it, especially because there are two areas in his ward with railroad tracks.
“There are a lot of people and things that are very important close to where something like this could happen,” Grandstrand said.
He said he felt like the public had been misinformed about the dangers of transporting oil by trains.
“We were told, essentially, by the (oil) industry and by the state government that this was safe,” Grandstrand said. “We need to know what the risks are for sure.”
No one was injured in the Casselton accident, but a train carrying crude oil through Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killed dozens of people when it derailed in July.
Grandstrand’s question at Tuesday’s meeting came on the heels of a council hearing about the process of updating the Grand Forks County multi-hazard mitigation plan, which will be sent to the council and other local government for approval when completed.
Council member Bret Weber said he’s sure the possibility of a train derailment will be addressed in the multi-hazard plan, and if it’s not, the council will have some questions about it before approving the plan.
“I don’t think there’d be any of us (on the council) that wouldn’t be concerned about (a train derailment),” Weber said.
While it’s necessary to be prepared, Campbell reiterated that the possibility of a train derailment in town is slim.
If a train did derail in Grand Forks, the damage would likely be far less than what happened in Casselton or Lac-Megantic, because the trains are moving only about 5 mph through town, Sandry said.
“It’s probably even rare in Casselton,” Sandry said, “but they happen.”
Sandry praised the work of emergency responders in Casselton.
“It just really was a seamless operation,” he said.
He hopes it would be as seamless if a train derailment did happen in Grand Forks, he said. “We are as prepared as we possibly can be.”