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'We would have been history': 5 years later, Casselton train blast still echoes with lessons learned, regulatory changes

A fire from a train derailment burns uncontrollably as seen in this aerial photograph Dec. 30, 2013, west of Casselton, N.D. Forum file photo1 / 4
The top fittings are shown from a charred oil tanker car in the wreckage of a train derailment and fire that occurred near Casselton, N.D., on Dec. 30, 2013. Forum file photo2 / 4
A fire from a train derailment burns uncontrollably as seen in this photograph Dec. 30, 2013, west of Casselton, N.D. Forum file photo3 / 4
Smoke from a train derailment fire arches through the sky Dec. 30, 2013, near Casselton, N.D. Forum file photo4 / 4

CASSELTON, N.D. — Minutes after it rumbled through town on a frigid December afternoon, a westbound train laden with grain broke an axle, tossing grain cars into a jumble.

A short time later an eastbound train, loaded with crude oil from western North Dakota’s Oil Patch, was rolling toward the scene at 43 miles per hour.

Unfortunately, the oil train’s crew was using a different radio frequency than the grain train crew, so the oil train had no advance warning before it slammed into the derailed grain cars, derailing two locomotives and 21 other cars, including 20 tankers.

Eighteen of the tank cars punctured, some exploding into fireballs visible for miles as thick black smoke billowed. An estimated 400,000 gallons of crude oil spilled, though much of it burned.

The train derailment happened nearly five years ago, on Dec. 30, 2013. Nobody was injured in the crash, which caused an estimated $6.1 million in damage. More than 1,400 people were voluntarily evacuated from Casselton, about 20 miles west of Fargo, as a precaution.

“We saw the big black smoke, and we didn’t know what was going on,” said Rory Peterson, proprietor of the Hardware Hank in Casselton.

Peterson was unloading a truck shipment of merchandise when he saw the smoke. He walked to the front of his store for a better view. Facing west, he saw the thick plumes of smoke about a mile west of town.

“Initially, we thought it was the ethanol plant,” he said, referring to Tharaldson Ethanol, about 2 miles west of town. “It was kind of like you see on TV. It was pretty impressive.”

Half an hour or so later, loud booms sounded as tanker cars exploded. “You felt ‘em,” Peterson said.

Peterson’s hardware store is about 150 or 200 feet from the railroad tracks, with trains passing daily, including more than 10 oil trains per day at the time of the derailment. Peterson and others in Casselton are grateful the accident occurred a safe distance from town in a remote area where no people or developed property were threatened.

“If it would have been in town, we would have been history,” he said. “We would have been an ink spot.”

A train that was carrying Bakken crude derailed in Canada earlier in 2013, killing 47 people and incinerating part of Lac Megantic, Quebec.

The Casselton derailment prompted calls for more stringent standards for rail tank cars. “It’s very clear that we need tank cars with improved safety features for the transportation of Bakken crude oil,” said then-Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who owns a farm near Casselton.

Regulation rollback

Calls for tanker cars that could better withstand punctures and include other safety features were made four years earlier, in 2009, after a deadly ethanol train crash and fire in Illinois.

But the Trump administration is rolling back Obama-era regulations that require installation of electronically controlled brakes instead of the pneumatic braking technology that has been standard since it was invented in the 1860s.

The railroad industry has claimed that it would cost $3 billion to install the brakes for trains that haul flammable liquids, far more than the $500 million estimated by the Obama administration.

The Trump administration has taken the industry view, but The Associated Press pointed out the U.S. Department of Transportation failed to include $117 million in benefits from the electronically controlled brakes. Trump administration officials said, however, that the miscalculation didn’t alter their conclusion that the more sophisticated brakes weren’t worth the expense.

Tim McLean, chief of the Casselton Volunteer Fire Department, said his crew is much better prepared now to handle train derailments involving hazardous materials. Thirteen members have received special training through a program supported by legislation pushed by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.

Because of the Casselton derailment and other rail accidents, tanker cars are being improved. New tank cars have double walls to make them more puncture-resistant, better venting systems and better brakes, he said.

"They made a safer car," he said. "They made a lot of changes." Rail inspections have also increased.

At the time of the Casselton derailment, two-thirds of North Dakota’s crude oil was shipped by rail. Since then, construction of new pipelines, including the Dakota Access Pipeline, has taken many oil tanker cars off the tracks.

"The train traffic is reduced a lot," McLean said. "You certainly can notice it."

Lessons learned

The Renewable Fuels Association included the 2013 Casselton blast in a report of case studies to improve responses to large train derailments.

Reviewers noted that the Casselton Volunteer Fire Department did not have a plan in place for train derailments, although they did have a plan for the Tharaldson Ethanol plant outside town.

The Cass County emergency manager had a written plan that considered rail shipments a hazard, but did not have a specific plan for crude oil, according to the review.

Also, the command post from which officials directed the incident response had cellular phone and internet problems and was too small for an incident of that magnitude, the review found.

The National Transportation Safety Board was “very slow in responding” and, with the fire still burning, would not let BNSF Railway continue its mitigation operations, according to the review.

BNSF and law enforcement cellular phone traffic overwhelmed the local cellphone system, reviewers found.

The reviewers said decisions in responding to major derailments should be made “jointly, not independently,” and a communication process between local responders and the rail industry “has to be built into local response plans.”

Chief McLean said the response went smoothly and the coordination between his crew and officials from the Cass County Sheriff's Office and emergency management office, among the many other agencies that responded, went well.

"Everything worked out," he said.

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