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Death toll rises as boom takes hold: South Heart woman broken in accident, survives

Mary Hodell, seen here in Beach on Friday, survived a bone-crushing accident in the Oil Patch. Accidents and the death toll associated with them are on the rise as an oil boom takes hold in the region.

SOUTH HEART -- The accident was so gruesome, Mary Hodell thought she had died.

She broke her knees, a tibia, a clavicle, a wrist, a shoulder and nine ribs. The heel of the foot she used to slam on the brake was shattered into 18 pieces.

"It was literally like hitting a brick wall," Hodell remembers, thinking back on that late April afternoon when she, along with her five children, smashed into the back of an idle oil truck at 40 mph on a two-lane gravel road just north of here on their way home from church.

But she just couldn't see it coming. Minutes before, several other big rigs passed her going the other direction, each time kicking up a shroud of dust, eliminating visibility.

"I was two feet away from him when the haze started to lower, and I could see that there was an outline of a vehicle," Hodell said.

It's an all too common occurrence on country roads near the Bakken nowadays, she said. And as more oil traffic funnels into the state, road and railway fatalities and accidents such as Hodell's are spiking.

In 2012, 169 people died on a North Dakota road. The last time the state has had more than 150 deaths on the road was in 1981, with 167 fatalities, according to the North Dakota Department of Transportation. The last time there was at least 169 road deaths was when 185 died on the road in 1978.

Train-related fatalities also spiked statewide. Numbers kept by the Federal Railroad Administration show that, through October, 10 people died on a railway in North Dakota in 2012. That's up from only one railway death in 2011 and five in 2010. The last time the state had 10 railway deaths was in 1980, according to FRA data that dates back to 1975.

But Hodell said she doesn't need stats to tell her it's more dangerous out her back door. The constant blizzards of debris stirred up by the truck traffic are reminder enough.

"You feel like this isn't safe. This isn't how living out in the country is supposed to be," she said.

'We're getting crushed'

Of the 169 deaths on the road in 2012, 72 occurred in the northwest region, which includes the towns of Minot and Williston, the highest of any other region, according to the North Dakota Highway Patrol. The next highest region was the northeast, with 34 fatalities last year.

Five of the 10 train deaths and 37 of 84 nonfatal accidents involving a train, or 44 percent, took place in what the DOT labels an oil-producing county.

Jim Hall, a transportation consultant in Washington and former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, called it "common sense" that the increases in accidents and the huge jump in traffic in the state are connected.

"If I was a public official or a citizen of the area, I would be concerned," he said.

According to the DOT, the state had more than 1 million registered vehicles last year, up from 889,213 in 2011. There were more than 509,000 licensed drivers statewide in 2012, up from 496,543 the year before.

Foot traffic is also up as the population continues to grow, especially in the west. In April, the Census Bureau called Williston the fastest-growing micro-area in the country.

According to a recent North Dakota State University study, Williston could hit 44,000 people by 2017, while Williams County could see 70,000 people. Both numbers are triple the population figures from the 2010 census.

Sgt. Tom Iverson of the Highway Patrol said the Bakken area is seeing "an increase in all law enforcement activities," meaning more service calls, car crashes and railroad crossing incidents.

"Our troopers out there are very, very taxed," Iverson said. "They've been working a lot of overtime, and we're just kinda getting crushed out there actually."

The area has seen rapid growth in the trains used to haul oil. BNSF has been hauling crude oil from the Bakken for five years, and in that time it has seen the annual amount of oil hauled increase from 1.3 million barrels then to 88.9 million barrels in 2012, BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said.

To accommodate, McBeth said BNSF has made a "significant investment" of $86 million in the state for maintenance and capacity improvements.

Canadian Pacific Railway, which has a main line running through the Bakken, invested more than $90 million in the state in 2011 for infrastructure upgrades, said spokesman Ed Greenberg. Nationwide, CP's crude oil moved by rail has gone from 13,000 carloads in 2011 to a forecast of 70,000 carloads in 2013, and the Bakken is an important part of that, Greenberg said.

And it's not just commodity trains that are expanding. Amtrak noted in the October 2012 edition of its company newsletter that its Williston depot saw more riders by June in 2012 than it had the entire previous fiscal year. That station is now expanding, doubling the depot's waiting area to better accommodate what it calls a "tsunami of passengers."

Iverson said while the population is spiking, other factors go into road fatalities. In North Dakota last year, 50 percent of deaths on the road involved alcohol, higher than the national average.

"I hate to always go back to our increase in population and always blame everything on that, but a lot of things stem from that," he said. "If more people are coming here and working, we're just naturally going to see an increase in these things."

Train 'safety blitz'

Railroad companies say they have noticed an increase in statewide incidents and are working to educate the public on railway safety, in part through the state chapter of Operation Lifesaver, a national rail safety non-profit.

Both BNSF and CP took part in what they deemed a "safety blitz" in the western part of the state in the summer of 2012, holding safety presentations, using a targeted ad campaign and placing law enforcement officers on trains to monitor how drivers act at crossings.

Increased federal oversight is also coming. Representatives from groups such as the FRA, NDDOT, Montana DOT, BNSF, CP, tribal police and sheriff's offices from Montana and North Dakota oil counties have formed an effort called the Rail Accident Mitigation Project.

"In those counties, they sat down almost like a diagnostic team and said 'Well, what do we need to do here?'" said FRA spokesman Warren Flatau.

Since Operation Lifesaver began in 1972, vehicle-train collisions have gone down 80 percent nationwide, said Serena Schmit, a state coordinator for the group. Still, she admitted that North Dakota is seeing a recent rise in train related accidents.

Iverson said the 15 new full-time troopers called for by Gov. Jack Dalrymple's 2013 budget would help alleviate the issues that come with more traffic.

Not everyone sees the correlation between more accidents and more traffic as crystal clear. Peter French, assistant vice president of safety and performance analysis at the American Association of Railroads, said because North Dakota's rail fatalities in general are so low, a one-year increase is difficult to explain precisely.

"There are other states that have a lot more traffic and a lot more of a problem with highway-rail (accidents)," he said. "My guess is some of it can be explained by expanding population and some of it perhaps not."

Still, French said if North Dakota's population continues to boom, he would expect road and railway accidents to also rise proportionally.

Schmit said the increases should be shocking.

"We might not think that these numbers are high. The scary thing is that they're rising," she said. "We shouldn't be seeing incidents like this on the rise."

An evolving state

Increased traffic into the state is more than a danger to humans. Wayde Schafer, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, said the population boom out west has had a negative effect on local flora and fauna as well.

Only 4 percent of land in the state is public, Schafer said, and with more roads, trucks, and trains, that little bit of public land is becoming all the more valuable.

"People are not going to recreate in an oil field," he said. "(The Badlands have) become very industrialized, and you have way more people and with people comes noise and traffic and trash."

Hodell said she still enjoys living here. If you stop into town, you can find her at her café, The Farmer's Daughter. She still attends physical therapy twice a week, reconditioning her legs, but doctors say she'll never be able to run again.

"We chose South Heart," Hodell said. "It's a small town. We like that. We like the fact that everybody knows each other."

Her children, all under the age of 12, escaped with relatively minor injuries, some cuts and bruises. One son suffered a broken jaw. Hodell said they're closer now after the accident.

Still, the mother admits she's worried about the way the state is changing, and she fears for her eldest son who will soon be out on the same streets where she had her accident.

Roadside sunflowers are caked in orange debris from the constant truck traffic, she said, and huge 18-wheelers pass her by regularly on the skinny gravel roads.

"It's not like when I was kid, and I learned to drive on those country roads. It's a lot more dangerous now," Hodell said. "You do say your prayers a lot when you're driving."