Dense columns of black smoke rose from the North Dakota plains after a train carrying more than 100 cars of crude oil derailed and exploded in a massive fireball Monday, forcing officials to evacuate residents of a nearby town.
The derailment, which caused a roiling ball of flame that could be seen more than a kilometre away, is the third major incident involving an oil-laden train in less than six months, starting with the deadly derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Que., this summer, which killed 47 people and destroyed much of the town.
Similar to the Lac-Mégantic disaster, the train that derailed Monday was carrying crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields. The cargo exploded after the train collided with another train carrying soy beans, which had gone off the tracks. Residents in nearby Casselton, N.D., reported seeing flames shooting more than 30 metres in the air, and hearing at least six loud explosions. As crews battled the blaze Monday night, authorities were ordering residents to stay indoors to avoid the toxic fumes, and were preparing to evacuate at least 300 people.
Terry Johnson, the manager of a grain dealer roughly a kilometre from the blast, said the explosion rattled his business and has covered Casselton in smoke. “You could hear the explosion,” he said. “It shook our building and there was a huge fireball.”
The derailment comes at a time when there are growing concerns about shipping oil by rail. Amid tight pipeline capacity, large amounts of crude oil have started to be shipped on trains throughout the United States and Canada in the past few years. But there are mounting questions about a lack of regulations overseeing the industry.
On July 6, a train carrying 72 cars of crude oil from North Dakota derailed in Lac-Mégantic causing deadly explosions that destroyed much of the downtown and fires that burned for four days. It was the worst rail accident in Canadian history.
In November, a 90-car oil train derailed in rural Alabama, causing 11 crude tankers to erupt in fireballs similar to the Lac-Mégantic disaster. Fire crews said they were lucky the train derailed in an unpopulated area given the size of the blasts.
After the disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board said it was “unusual” for oil to erupt so violently. But Monday’s derailment in North Dakota raises new questions about the ongoing threat posed by derailments of trains carrying crude.
A four-month investigation by The Globe and Mail found the oil being shipped from the Bakken region – which straddles North Dakota, and parts of Manitoba and Saskatchewan – is far more volatile than regulators and railways believed. The Globe found evidence that companies often don’t test their oil shipments for explosiveness before sending the trains, since crude oil, though flammable, hasn’t historically been considered extremely combustible.
The investigation also found that as more oil moved by rail in the past few years, no additional safety regulations were put in place by regulators to govern this growing method of shipping crude. The Globe’s report questioned why Ottawa has consistently left crude oil off its list of highly dangerous substances, which require extra safety precautions, and why regulators never considered oil to be particularly explosive.
In the wake of that report, Transportation Minister Lisa Raitt announced two weeks ago that the federal government would begin to designate crude oil as highly dangerous, which will require new procedures, including placing specialized firefighting equipment along rail routes. Ms. Raitt said she would also crack down on testing rules in response to The Globe’s allegations that some companies aren’t properly scrutinizing their shipments.
Casselton, a town of less than 3,000 people, is situated in the heart of North Dakota’s oil boom, about 40 kilometres west of Fargo, and about 350 kilometres south of Winnipeg. New methods of extracting crude oil from hard to reach pools below ground have created a thriving industry, and more than two-thirds of the crude produced in North Dakota is moved by rail to refineries, including a facility in Saint John, N.B. owned by Irving Oil.
Inspectors from Transport Canada executed a search warrant on Irving’s refinery in mid-December as part of an investigation into the Lac-Mégantic disaster. Court documents indicate Irving is being probed to determine if the company followed proper procedures for importing dangerous goods, including if the company knew whether the oil was highly volatile.
Irving documents obtained by The Globe indicate the company had concerns about an over-reliance by oil shippers on the refinery to test the crude, after it has already been shipped. Such testing comes “too late in the process to address any safety issues,” the Irving document says. The document was part of a presentation about product quality made to the oil sector one month before Lac-Mégantic.
Monday’s derailment also comes as officials in North Dakota are preparing to craft a report highlighting the safety of moving oil by rail, in response to mounting questions stemming from the Lac-Mégantic and Alabama derailments. Lynn Helms, director of North Dakota’s Mineral Resources Department, said in mid-December he wanted to commission the report to “dispel this myth” that the oil is “somehow an explosive, really dangerous thing.” Despite the state’s assertion, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board, in its investigation into the Lac-Mégantic incident, confirmed the oil was mislabelled, and was more explosive than the paperwork accompanying the train suggested.
- With a file from Associated Press