Casselton crash one of biggest oil spills on rails in decades
CASSELTON — A fiery train crash last month near here caused tank cars to lose more than 400,000 gallons of crude oil, the country’s largest oil spill from a train in decades, according to federal authorities.
A preliminary investigation report released Monday by the National Transportation Safety Board said 18 of the 20 tank cars that derailed were punctured in the Dec. 30 crash on BNSF tracks.
Dave Glatt, chief of the North Dakota Department of Health’s environmental health section, estimated that 425,000 to 450,000 gallons of oil spilled from the train. He said it’s not clear how much of the oil was incinerated in explosions following the crash.
“Some of it was burned up. Some of it ended up on the soil,” Glatt said. “We’re actively working with Burlington Northern to get that cleaned up.”
In a federal database of incidents involving hazardous materials dating back to at least the 1970s, the next-largest spill from a train occurred in Carriere, Miss., in 1980 when 96,000 gallons were released. In July, an oil train blast killed dozens in Lac-Megantic, Quebec and resulted in a spill of about 1.5 million gallons.
Glatt said most of the oil spilled near Casselton, about 20 miles west of Fargo, was contained to the area by the tracks, but some of it spread into neighboring farm fields. He said a contractor paid by BNSF has excavated the vast majority of the contaminated soil, and 1,400 tons have been taken to an industrial landfill near Sawyer, a town southeast of Minot.
The oil has not reached any waterways or drinking water sources, but environmental officials are concerned that the spring thaw could cause oil to seep into nearby drainage ditches. If that happens, booms would be installed to absorb the oil, he said.
Glatt said that once the ground thaws, officials will test the soil to see if all the oil has been cleaned up.
Among the findings released in Monday’s NTSB report:
Thirteen cars from a westbound soybean train derailed, and one of the derailed cars ended up on the adjacent track. An oncoming train hauling crude oil struck the derailed train, causing the two lead locomotives of the oil train and its first 21 cars to derail. In addition to the 20 oil-carrying tank cars, a train car carrying sand also derailed. In all, the soybean train had 112 cars and the oil train had 106 cars.
The NTSB says the soybean train was traveling about 28 mph when the crew applied emergency brakes. The oil train was going about 43 mph when the crew applied emergency brakes, and its estimated speed at the time of the crash was only 1 mph slower, 42 mph. The speed limit for trains on that stretch of track is 60 mph.
In the wreckage, investigators found a broken axle and two wheels that were shipped to the NTSB laboratory in Washington, D.C., to determine if they played a role in the crash.
The preliminary report did not offer an explanation of what caused the soybean train to derail. The final report, which may give more insight, is expected to be released in 12 to 18 months.
No one was injured in the crash or the oil-fueled explosions. Concerns about toxic clouds of smoke billowing from burning oil prompted a voluntary evacuation of Casselton, and about 1,400 residents left town.
During the investigation, the NTSB questioned the crews of both trains as well as first responders. The transcripts of those interviews are expected to be made public later this year, NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss said.
The NTSB estimated the crash caused $6.1 million in damage. BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said that figure is expected to grow because cleanup efforts are still underway. She said the wrecked train cars remain at the crash site and will eventually be dismantled and hauled away.
Delegation speaks out
The oil train that crashed near Casselton was hauling crude from North Dakota’s Bakken formation, the same type of oil involved in the derailment in Quebec. Days after the Casselton crash, federal officials issued a safety alert warning that the light, sweet Bakken crude may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil.
On Monday, all three members of North Dakota’s congressional delegation responded to the NTSB report by issuing statements calling for improved rail safety, especially for tank cars.
“We need to understand why these tanks are breaching, and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) needs to expedite its work to release proposed updated standards for rail tanker cars,” Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said.
Along the same lines, Sen. John Hoeven said, “Thankfully, no one was hurt, but this accident underscores the need to work to prevent derailments in the first place, and to upgrade the tanker fleet to reduce the risk of fires and explosions if an accident does occur.”
Rep. Kevin Cramer singled out the DOT-111 tank car, the type of car involved in the crash near Casselton, for its design flaws. The Association of American Railroads has urged PHMSA to retrofit or phase out DOT-111 cars that are not built to the latest industry safety standards.
“The preliminary report released today on the Casselton derailment confirms the need for updated rail car construction standards, and future documents will no doubt reveal the need for more improvements,” Cramer said.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple said in a statement that talks about increasing the safety of oil-hauling trains must consider train operations.
“The discussion about operating rules needs to include train speeds,” the governor said.
This week, Dalrymple will talk with officials at Dallas-based Trinity Industries, one of the nation’s major manufacturers of oil tank cars, to get their perspective on tank car safety. The NTSB spokesman said Trinity either made or owned the tank cars involved in the crash near Casselton. A message left for a Trinity spokesman was not returned Monday.
In 2012, Trinity Industries bought a West Fargo plant formerly owned by DMI Industries, a maker of wind towers. Trinity now employs 120 workers at the plant where metal storage tanks are built.