Health experts testing air quality after ND town evacuates over fiery oil train derailment

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Health experts are testing the quality of the air in a North Dakota town after most residents evacuated Monday night following a fiery crude oil train derailment.

The fire had been so intense as darkness fell that investigators couldn’t even get close enough to count the number of burning cars. Some burned through the night.

“Is it highly hazardous or did most of it burn off in the fire?” Casselton Sheriff Paul Laney said of elements in burning crude that could be risky for health. “We just don’t know.”  

The derailment shook the town with a series of explosions that sent flames and black smoke skyward.  Health experts said they did not yet have results on the air quality early Tuesday.

Sheriff’s Deputy Joe Crawford said the fire died down overnight, “but we’ve still got plenty of smoke and plenty of fire and plenty of heat.”

Laney said much of Casselton’s water tower was covered in soot and that he expects to see a lot of the black powder around town as the day progresses.

“Wait until you see the footprints in the snow later on,” he said. “That’s the stuff coming out of the sky.”

The Cass County sheriff’s office issued a voluntary evacuation for the entire town Monday evening as a precaution due to an anticipated shift in weather that would blow smoke and fumes from the blaze directly into the town, creating a health hazard. Officials estimated that approximately 65 percent of the town’s 2,400 residents had left the area late Monday. A shelter has been set up at a middle school in Fargo, which is about 25 miles away.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Monday night it had launched a “go-team” to investigate this latest derailment. Jeff Zent, a spokesman for Gov. Jack Dalrymple, said the National Guard was on alert if needed.

The North Dakota Department of Health has advised residents with respiratory conditions to stay indoors unless they are told to leave town and anyone experiencing symptoms of respiratory distress should see a doctor.

BNSF Railway Co. says it believes about 20 cars caught fire after its oil train left the tracks about 2:10 p.m. Monday. The sheriff’s office says it thinks 10 cars were on fire. No one was hurt.

Four or five train cars were still burning as darkness fell Monday, according to Casselton fire officials. Authorities said they would be allowed to burn out.

Authorities hadn’t yet been able to untangle exactly how the derailment happened, but a second train carrying grain was involved. BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said the train carrying grain derailed first, then knocked several cars of the oil train off adjoining tracks. The National Transportation Safety Board said early Tuesday that it was dispatching a so-called “Go Team” to investigate the accident.

Ryan Toop, who lives about a half-mile away, said he heard explosions and drove as close as about two city blocks to the fire, which erupted on a day when temperatures were below zero.

“I rolled down the window, and you could literally keep your hands warm,” Toop said.

The derailment happened amid heightened concerns about the United States’ increased reliance on rail to carry crude oil. Fears of catastrophic derailments were particularly stoked after last summer’s crash in Quebec of a train carrying crude from North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch. Forty-seven people died in the ensuing fire.

The tracks that the train was on Monday pass through the middle of Casselton, and Cass County Sheriff’s Sgt. Tara Morris said it was “a blessing it didn’t happen within the city.”

Hannah Linnard, 13, said she was in the bedroom of her friend’s house about half a mile from the derailment, wrapping late Christmas presents.

“I looked out the window and all of a sudden the train car tipped over and the whole thing was engulfed in flames and it just exploded. The oil car tipped over onto the grain car,” she said. Hannah said she could feel the warmth even inside the house.

Terry Johnson, the manager of a grain dealer less than a mile from the derailment, said he heard at least six explosions in the two hours following the incident.

“It shook our building and there was a huge fireball,” he said.

North Dakota is the No. 2 oil-producing state in the U.S., trailing only Texas, and a growing amount of that is being shipped by rail. The state’s top oil regulator said earlier this month that he expected as much as 90 percent of North Dakota’s oil would be carried by train in 2014, up from the current 60 percent.

The number of crude oil carloads hauled by U.S. railroads surged from 10,840 in 2009 to a projected 400,000 this year. Despite the increase, the rate of accidents has stayed relatively steady. Railroads say 99.997 percent of hazardous materials shipments reach destinations safely.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

4 thoughts on “Health experts testing air quality after ND town evacuates over fiery oil train derailment

    1. And ya know REDHORSE, I heard on late night news that this is the 2nd or 3rd accident in only a few months. These oil wells, frack sand mines, and all of these accidents are destroying our land and our air big time. Bastard oil co.s 🙁

    2. Yep!……never ever in recent history do i recall trains blowing up like all these have done across the u.s. and dont even get me started on the texas fertilizer plant explosion being an accident as well. obummer is very systematically wiping out key infrastructure and using these false flag events as a “warning to the states governors”. just ask gov perry why he called the disaster “a nightmare” and not just an accident.

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