Four oil tanker cars, carrying Bakken crude oil, remained burning Wednesday after a fiery train derailment at 7:30 a.m. prompted the evacuation of a small Wells County town near the site of the blaze.
Emergency responders reported a small sigh of relief as the damp grass, which reached right to the railway tracks, was too wet to catch fire. Numerous firefighters maintained a perimeter, amid some earlier concerns that nearby propane tanks could catch fire and explode. The fire was being allowed to burn out Wednesday.
The town of Heimdal, population 40, was evacuated following the derailment along the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway line, according to North Dakota Department of Emergency Services spokeswoman Cecily Fong.
“The train … derailed between Hamberg and Heimdal,” Fong said.
Residents were allowed to return to their homes after 9 p.m. Wednesday.
Several local fire departments, a pair of regional HAZMAT teams and the North Dakota Highway Patrol responded to the incident. The North Dakota Department of Health is monitoring air quality in the area and advised people with respiratory issues to avoid the smoke, which was slow to dissipate due to weather conditions.
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BNSF issued a statement confirming no reported injuries or fatalities. The train cars were unjacketed CPC-1232 model cars, which are being phased out over the next five years due to safety concerns.
BNSF said the train had 109 cars: 107 contained crude oil and two were buffer cars full of sand. The train’s engine and cars that weren’t on fire were decoupled and moved from the site of the blaze. BNSF has rerouted eastbound and westbound Amtrak and BNSF freight traffic to maintain traffic flows.
Everett Johnson, whose farm is 1.5 miles east of Heimdal, said he drove to within half a mile of the site early Wednesday and saw heavy black smoke pouring from the wreck. Although his home is close to the derailment, a hill blocks his view of the site.
"The wind's blowing from the southwest to the northeast, so it's not affecting the town of Heimdal," he said. "It's drizzling and raining, so that's a good thing."
The cars that derailed were toward the rear end of the train, he said. The decoupled section was pulled further east.
"It's kind of a slough area," Johnson said.
It’s the third derailment in the eastern part of the state in less than three years. A December 2013 derailment west of Casselton caused a fiery explosion of oil tanker cars prompting a brief evacuation.
David Glatt, head of the Environmental Health Section of the state department of health, said staff were mobilized and began heading to Heimdal shortly after receiving word of the incident.
“Unfortunately, we do have some experience with this,” Glatt said.
Glatt said the agency’s work will begin once the fire is extinguished and it’s safe to work at the site. Air quality will continue to be monitored as necessary and a study of potential ground contamination and runoff from the site also will be conducted once the fire is out.
How long the department’s work at the site would take was unclear.
According to the Federal Railroad Administration, the amount of crude oil transported by rail has grown sharply in recent years. Rail shipments increased by 423 percent between 2011 and 2012 and in 2013 had surpassed 400,000 rail carloads per year.
FRA acting administrator Sarah Feinberg issued a statement Wednesday morning that an FRA investigative team will be sent to the site.
“Today’s incident is yet another reminder of why we issued a significant, comprehensive rule aimed at improving the safe transport of high hazard flammable liquids. The FRA will continue to look at all options available to us to improve safety and mitigate risks,” Feinberg said.
New federal regulations for oil train cars and traffic were released Friday. The rules call for all new railcars to be built up to the latest standards and existing cars to be retrofit. The regulations also call for reduced train speeds in high-risk areas.
(Bismarck Tribune reporter Andrew Sheeler and the Forum News Service contributed to this report.)
(Reach Nick Smith at 701-250-8255 or 701-223-8482 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)