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Quebec-like tragedy unlikely in southwest ND

Press Photo by Dustin Monke The Bakken Oil Express west of Dickinson is seen March 7. Chris Lewis, the general manager of the facility, said an oil-fueled explosion caused by a train derailment is unlikely to happen in southwest North Dakota.

Could an oil-fueled train explosion like the one last weekend in eastern Canada happen in Dickinson?

The short answer from one western North Dakota rail transport export is no. But much is likely to be learned in the coming weeks and months about what happened to cause a massive train derailment and explosion in a Quebec town on Saturday.

A report from the Associated Press Wednesday afternoon confirmed 15 deaths and dozens still missing after a Rail World Inc. train transporting Bakken crude oil derailed, resulting in the explosion of several cars in Lac-Megantic, a city of nearly 6,000 near the Maine border.

The train was stopped on a hill before it became loose, gaining speed before the eventual derailment and subsequent deadly explosion in the middle of the city.

Chris Lewis, general manager of the Bakken Oil Express facility west of Dickinson, said he could not imagine a scenario where a similar occurrence would happen in Dickinson.

"I would put the chances of something like that happening in Dickinson at zero," Lewis said Wednesday. "Since we came on in November of 2011, I've only heard of one of our trains being affected by a derailment in the entire U.S. I've heard of a lot more people dying in car accidents driving to Williston. I would say the chances of an engine staring on fire and a train magically going down a big hill and derail inside of Dickinson are zero."

With most of the crude oil extracted from North Dakota's Oil Patch heading to market via rail transport these days, safety has been a concern in recent days following the Quebec derailment.

Lewis said, however, that the incident was the result of a "perfect storm" of events. In an AP story this week, Rail World CEO Edward Burkhardt said brakes on the train were likely not applied correctly.

"I know the guidelines with (Burlington Northern Sante Fe LLC) is they're supposed to tie hand brakes on each car if they park a train like was parked in Quebec," Lewis said. "There's no way that would happen around here. With a grade like they had, they should have had over half the cars hand braked. There would have been no way that train would have moved. For what happened in Canada to happen, there's something fishy there, I think."

With some -- including Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. -- pointing to the Quebec derailment as a good reason to move forward with various pipeline projects, including the controversial Keystone XL, which many connected with the energy industry point to as the safest way to transport oil and gas.

Lewis oversees a facility that sends off about 100,000 barrels of oil per day. He disagrees.

"People who say that aren't looking at the broad picture," Lewis said. "Crude by rail offers our customers the ability to send their oil to multiple customers who they wouldn't be able to reach by pipeline, no matter what pipeline they put it on. Take for instance the East Coast, there's no pipeline out there. Crude by rail opens a lot of availability for our customers."

Canadian authorities have ruled out terrorism in the explosion, according to the AP, but the investigation continues and could eventually bring to light criminal negligence, though it's still too early to tell.

Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Kevin Thompson said rail transport safety has improved recently in the Peace Garden State, according to FRA numbers.

"The number of train accidents in North Dakota declined 50 percent between 2012 and 2011," said Thompson in an email on Wednesday. "There were 18 train accidents in 2012 and 36 in 2011. The accident data includes derailments, collisions and other obstructions. None of the reported accidents in any of the past three years included the release of any hazmat materials."

Though he was not aware of any mishaps involving trains transporting oil to the scale of the recent occurrence in Canada, Thompson said statistics specifically related to train accidents in the U.S. involving the transportation of crude oil were not available Wednesday, pointing to the need for a Freedom of Information request.

BNSF spokesperson Amy McBeth released the following statement regarding the Quebec disaster on Wednesday:

"While we don't yet know the specifics, the results of the investigation will help determine what can be done to ensure it does not happen again," the release stated. "We believe the investigation needs to be completed first to ensure that all of the facts about the cause and the sequence of events are available to be assessed to prevent further incidents. Railroads remain the safest way to transport hazardous materials."

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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