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Track where oil train derailed was inspected day before fiery accident, FRA says

Investigators gather Friday, May 8, 2015, at the site of the oil train derailment and fire near Heimdal, N.D. Photo courtesy of the Office of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp

HEIMDAL, N.D. – Railroad tracks where an oil train derailed Wednesday in central North Dakota had been inspected by BNSF Railway a day earlier and by the Federal Railroad Administration about three months before the fiery derailment, an FRA spokesman said Friday.

“Neither of those inspections noted any defects or violations,” Kevin Thompson said.

BNSF says federal regulations require four inspections per week on that section of track, but the company typically inspects it every day.

Teams from the FRA and National Transportation Safety Board continued their investigations Friday at the site just east of Heimdal where six oil tanker cars derailed Wednesday morning, spawning a fire and smoke plume that forced the town’s 25 residents and two nearby farmsteads to evacuate. An NTSB spokesman said its four investigators were expected to be there through the weekend.

Fragments of a railcar’s broken wheel found at the scene will be examined back at the NTSB’s lab in Washington, D.C., spokesman Keith Holloway said. Investigators will look at whether the fragments came from the derailed train or a different train and what, if any, role they played in the derailment.

“We probably won’t have any specifics about that until the (accident) docket is released, and that could be a couple months from now,” he said.

On April 17, the FRA issued a safety advisory after a preliminary investigation found that a broken wheel on a tank car loaded with Bakken crude may have caused the fiery derailment of a BNSF train March 5 near Galena, Ill.

The 103-car train was traveling at 23 mph when 21 cars derailed only a few hundred feet from the Mississippi River. NTSB officials have said the train at Heimdal was traveling 24 mph before it derailed.

The safety advisory recommended that railroads lower the threshold for replacing wheels and taking cars out of service on trains carrying flammable liquids. The FRA also recommended that pre-departure inspections be conducted only by designated inspectors who are better trained than train crew members or other railroad employees to detect mechanical defects.

BNSF spokesman Michael Trevino said Friday that the railroad already had taken action April 1 to reduce its tolerance for when a railcar would be removed from service because of wheel defects.

As for the inspector recommendations, “We’re still looking at that and try to figure out how we can adopt that safety advisory,” he said.

The track at Heimdal reopened to train traffic at 7:35 a.m. Friday. Trevino said crews were able to move the derailed cars and repair the track more quickly than expected.

“So now it’s just the cleanup of the soil in the area,” he said.

Officials still didn’t know exactly how much oil remained on the ground or in the wetlands surrounding the track. State Environmental Health Chief Dave Glatt said officials from BNSF and Hess Corp. – which owned the railcars and the oil – estimated about 34,000 gallons burned in the fire and an additional 60,000 gallons was released from the cars, a portion of which also burned.

Booms deployed in the wetland kept the spilled oil confined to a relatively small area, and no oil sheen was detected beyond the booms, Glatt said. Crews planned to try to vacuum up the oil, he said.

Department staff monitoring water quality found no contamination of the drainages leading to the James River about 13 miles away, Glatt said.

“We’re not anticipating any impacts other than just localized to the train derailment site, but as a precaution we’re collecting some samples to verify that,” he said.

Investigators planned to sample groundwater in the area, including a well that Heimdal no longer uses for its water supply, and it will likely take a week or two to get those results, Glatt said.

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.