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A fire from a train derailment burns uncontrollably as seen in this aerial photograph Monday, Dec. 30, 2013, west of Casselton, N.D.

Fire and smoke rage at the site of an oil train collision west of Casselton, North Dakota, Monday. The accident raises new questions about the safety of rail in transporting U.S. oil.


Christina Nunez

National Geographic

Published December 31, 2013

A fiery train collision in North Dakota has rattled the residents of a state experiencing both the benefits and pitfalls of an oil boom. (See related photos: "Bakken Shale Oil Boom Transforms North Dakota.")

A 112-car train carrying grain derailed on Monday and collided with a 106-car eastbound train carrying crude oil, outside Casselton, North Dakota. The collision set off a blaze that engulfed at least 21 cars, according to the operator of both trains, BNSF.

The accident points to the dangers of rail transport of crude oil, sometimes overlooked amid a U.S. debate over the wisdom of building oil pipelines through the Midwest. The collision follows a deadly oil train tragedy earlier this year in Canada.

In the North Dakota accident, 19 cars carrying crude oil derailed, along with one "buffer car" carrying sand to separate the locomotive from the crude tankers, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The accident occurred one mile west of Casselton, a town of about 2,400 residents near Fargo and the state's eastern border (map).

No injuries had been reported, but residents of Casselton were forced to evacuate as plumes of black smoke rose and spread from the crash. Two other townships near Casselton were encouraged to evacuate as well.

Authorities said the fire would need to burn off, because the blaze was too dangerous for firefighters to approach. The NTSB, Federal Railroad Administration, and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration have sent teams to investigate the cause of the crash.

Too Close for Comfort

In just a few years, North Dakota has become the nation's number two producer of oil behind Texas, thanks to the rise of advanced fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, in the state's Bakken shale. Output from the region was set to top one million barrels per day in December, a more than fivefold increase from five years ago.

The boom has drawn thousands of workers and contributed to a significant rise in population, but the state still ranks 47th among U.S. states in population density, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The area's low population density may have been a blessing in Monday's crash, but the incident increases worries for those who do live in the region. "There have been numerous derailments in this area," Casselton Mayor Ed McConnell told The Associated Press. "It's almost gotten to the point that it looks like not if we're going to have an accident, it's when. We dodged a bullet by having it out of town, but this is too close for comfort."

Rail is the primary mode of transport for crude coming out of North Dakota, which is producing more than its existing pipeline network can carry. Overall, rail transport of crude increased 44 percent from 2012 to 2013 alone, according to the Association of American Railroads. And analysts say that because the longevity of the Bakken boom is still not clear, it will be years, if ever, before pipelines are built to accommodate the bounty. (See "The New Oil Landscape".)

BNSF alone has seen an increase of 7,000 percent in the volume of Bakken crude it is transporting, and idle railways that had been built to deliver grain are being refurbished to deliver oil. (See related story: "Oil Train Revival: Booming North Dakota Relies on Rail to Deliver Its Crude.")

Earlier Accident

The Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, illustrates with devastating clarity what can happen when an oil train malfunction occurs near a population center. In July, parked unattended tankers carrying Bakken crude detached from their locomotives and rolled into the town of 6,000, killing 47 people.

The town resumed train service in December, banning the transport of hazardous substances, including oil. (See related stories: "Oil Train Crash Probe Raises Five Key Issues on Cause" and "Oil Train Tragedy in Canada Spotlights Rising Crude Transport by Rail.")

The Lac-Mégantic incident prompted the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration to issue an emergency order with new requirements for securing unattended trains, but the agency acknowledged in that same order that it did not have adequate resources to inspect more than a small percentage of trains for regulatory compliance.

In any case, observance of those rules would not have prevented an accident like Monday's in North Dakota. The NTSB's Robert L. Sumwalt said in a briefing Tuesday, "I think our biggest challenge right now is that the fire is still burning, and we're not able to get up close and personal to the wreckage until the fire has gone out." Sumwalt said the NTSB could issue urgent safety recommendations if its investigation warranted them. (See related photos: "Ten Biggest Energy Stories of 2013.")

Additional reporting by David LaGesse

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

tayib colen
tayib colen

You guys gotta be kidding.  Trains haul stuff EVERY DAY and NIGHT much more dangerous than crude oil or fuel.  Like CHLORINE for instance.  Try being around for one of those tank cars to bust open.  Crude oil is nothing, Bob Burnitt Ellis County Texas..

Amanda Murphy Venezia
Amanda Murphy Venezia

The LX Pipeline could have decreased the amount of oil that is being transported by rail lines. Oil pipe lines my leak from time to time but, they don't smash into each other and blow up. 

It needed to be said but, I know it's not going to change any minds.

Steve Robinson
Steve Robinson

North Dakota Oil Train Explosions:
                                It Could Have Been Us

            TAHOLAH, WA--The massive oil train explosions in North Dakota, which caused caustic black smoke to engulf the town of Casselton, provide yet another example of the danger we face in this region due to increased transportation of oil by rail, says Fawn Sharp, President of the Quinault Indian Nation.
            “It could have been us,” said Sharp.
            “This is one of the very real dangers the Quinault Nation and others have been consistently warning people about,” said Sharp. “The smoke from such fiery accidents is poisonous and deadly, particularly to those with asthma and other respiratory ailments. But the danger of such spills does not stop with the smoke. Oil from such accidents can cause major destruction to land and water, leaching into ground waters, as well as rivers, streams, lakes and marine waters wreaking havoc on fish and wildlife habitat,” she said.
            “Industry officials, port officials and others who have been pushing for the increased oil traffic into Grays Harbor County have advocated increased traffic on the basis of benefits to employment and the economy. The folly of that argument becomes crystal clear in the wake of these accidents,” said Sharp.
            “The fact is that these accidents can happen anytime. Such spills cause major jeopardy to health, the environment and the economy. People hunkering in their homes or evacuating areas because they fear breathing the air, drinking the water or depending on a healthy ecosystem do not contribute to a sustainable economy,” said Sharp.
            The mile long train carrying crude oil from the fracking fields of North Dakota set off a series of huge explosions yesterday, causing officials to direct thousands of nearby residents to stay indoors as they waited for the resulting fires to subside. Businesses remained closed and homes appeared evacuated, according to local reports. The accident, which occurred near Casselton’s ethanol plant, fortunately has not resulted in any reported direct deaths so far.
            “But 47 people died in a separate oil train accident in Quebec this summer, and the fact is that each oil train entering our region risks lives, property and the environment,” said Sharp.
            North Dakota oil regulators say they expect that up to 90 percent of that state’s oil will be carried by train in 2014, up from 60 percent, matching a growing national trend. The number of crude oil carloads hauled by U.S. railroads surged from 10,840 in 2009 to a projected 400,000 this year.
            “Industry officials and other advocates of increased oil traffic typically point to the number of oil shipments that don’t result in accidents to support their claims of safety. But the fact is that there will be accidental spills. The accidents we have seen, from transport of oil by train as well as truck and ship, provide ample proof of this,” said Sharp.
            “Any such accident is one too many. The health of our people and the environment that sustains our health, and our economy, are far too valuable to allow our region to be swayed by industry rhetoric,” she said. “The number of jobs jeopardized by increased oil traffic far outnumber those to be gained from good stewardship. Moreover, vast increases in oil production, and transport, take us the absolute wrong direction as we endeavor to stand up to the very real danger of climate change and ocean acidification,” said Sharp.

joseph yechout
joseph yechout

Build the Keystone pipeline, but wont be OK'd  by this admin.

GameOf Trains
GameOf Trains

  Do you actually think that a 90 ton car or a car carrying combustible oil made any difference to the 47 victims in Canada or to their loved ones? Any car hauling inhalation hazards, flammable/combustible material, or poisons is a dangerous car no matter how you slice & dice it. The problem is that the Class 1 RR's, AAR & FRA are all chummy with each other & the RR's have appropriately seeded their fields to guarantee their unhindered growth. Profitability is the #1 priority of each & every RR & not safety as each would have you believing. Case in point: Jan. 05, 2005 in Graniteville, SC. A derailed NS train hauling chlorine causes death & the immediate evacuation of the town. The people of the town are in my opinion unfairly taken advantage of by NS agents who hand out checks & have the residents sign waivers not to take legal action against NS. Those people never knew what hit them. They might as well had signed over their soul to the devil. More important is how did NS resolve to avoid any future accident of this magnitude that literally destroyed a town? You would expect the FRA to mandate a requirement that takes advantage of the technological advances that would dramatically increase the safety of the crew as well as the civilian population. The cutting edge solution to this was a piece of paper called SPAF which stood for Switch Position Awareness Form. No matter if that form had been implemented before the Graniteville tragedy, it still wouldn't have prevented the train from departing the main line track to an industrial track because a switch leading into the industry wasn't restored for the main line. The form worked out so well that the FRA discontinued its use. This is such an egregious act by the FRA & NS that puts NS in the same spot prior to Graniteville. 

  The RR's are not concerned for your well-being nor for their own employees because the RR has no conscience or moral compass for that matter. It is far more profitable for the RR's to pay for casualties, deaths, & clean up, than it is to vest money in sure-fired safety technology. The current accident & future accidents, injuries, fatalities have already been calculated by BNSF's actuaries plus any litigation involved all have dollar amounts.

    Casselton will be yesterdays news because BNSF will bury you deep just like every Class 1 railroad quietly buries their accidents & the people involved. Maybe BNSF agents have approached the "displaced" evacuees & will make things right by giving them a little something something for the "inconvenience". A word of advise to those temporarily displaced who think they'll pursue litigation against BNSF: their tactic is starvation & discovering all your assets i.e. do you own your home, do you farm your land, how many acres do you own, do you have stock, do you have an IRA, how my acres of your property has trees, do you own your vehicles, how many? They're measuring you to see how long you can weather the storm. The list goes on & on & the sad thing is that you're a victim & not the perpetrator.  

Bob Burnitt
Bob Burnitt

You guys gotta be kidding.  Trains haul stuff EVERY DAY and NIGHT much more dangerous than crude oil or fuel.  Like CHLORINE for instance.  Try being around for one of those tank cars to bust open.  Crude oil is nothing, Bob Burnitt Ellis County Texas

Stephen Aske
Stephen Aske

I posted a comment on the day of the Casselton derailment after I read the article "TEN BIGGEST ENERGY STORIES of 2013." After a few days of time to reflect, I now know the "challenge" in "THE GREAT ENERGY CHALLENGE." It would be the development of conscience. Signed-a concerned North Dakotan.

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