Exploding oil cars, black smoke force evacuation of small ND town
HEIMDAL, N.D. - Curt Benson was in the middle of his morning shave when an explosion sent vibrations through his house on Main Street here Wednesday.
HEIMDAL, N.D. – Curt Benson was in the middle of his morning shave when an explosion sent vibrations through his house on Main Street here Wednesday.
“I looked out my window and I saw a black cloud of smoke,” he said.
The retired sheriff’s deputy jumped in the car and raced down the hill toward the scene about a quarter mile away, calling 911 when he saw a derailed oil tanker train aflame. Some cars had caught fire “and some were continuing to explode,” he said, describing the hissing sound and fire that followed.
Photo gallery: Train derails, tanker cars burn near ND town
“The smoke was just horrendous. A dark, black plume,” his wife, Lenore, said.
North Dakota’s second fiery derailment of an oil tanker train in less than 18 months forced the evacuation of about 25 people in Heimdal and also two farmsteads north of town, said Randi Suckut, a Wells County commissioner and emergency management spokesman.
It also called further attention to railcar safety standards and what some said is a need for more oil pipelines to take oil tankers off the tracks in the nation’s No. 2 oil-producing state and beyond.
“I think we’re very fortunate,” Gov. Jack Dalrymple told reporters mid-afternoon between meetings with first responders at the scene. “The fire has died down nicely. No fatalities. No injuries. The emergency response appears to have been outstanding.”
The eastbound BNSF Railway train derailed about 7:30 a.m. just east of the intersection of Wells County Road 1 and the BNSF line that runs by Heimdal, about 80 miles southeast of Minot.
Six cars derailed, and four of those were burning, Suckut said. A single crude oil railcar can carry about 680 to 720 barrels of crude, according to BNSF.
BNSF spokesman Michael Trevino said 107 tank cars were carrying crude, with two buffer cars loaded with sand between the crude cars and locomotives operated by a two-person crew.
Dalrymple spokesman Jeff Zent said the crude was loaded onto the train near Tioga, N.D. Trevino would not release the train’s origin or destination.
The cause of the derailment wasn’t known, he said.
By 5:30 p.m., heavy equipment had moved onto the site to build a containment dike around the wreck to protect a nearby slough so firefighters could douse the remaining flames with foam and water and allow for recovery of unburned oil. Suckut said there was a “very good possibility” evacuated residents would be allowed to return to their homes Wednesday night.
View U.S. train derailment fires since 2013 in a full screen map
‘Somewhat prepared to handle this’
Wells County Emergency Manager Tammy Roehrich said the scene looked “a lot like Casselton,” referring to the fiery train wreck of oil tankers
near Casselton in December 2013
that prompted about 1,400 residents to leave town during a voluntary evacuation.
Firefighters from nearby Harvey and Fessenden who responded Wednesday had recently participated in a tabletop exercise on how to deal with just such an incident, Suckut said. While they hadn’t yet conducted the hands-on exercise – some initially thought Wednesday’s page was a drill – “I think most of the agencies were somewhat prepared to handle this,” he said.
Everett Johnson, whose farm is 1.5 miles east of Heimdal, said he drove to within half a mile of the site earlier Wednesday and saw heavy black smoke pouring from the wreck.
A wind from the southeast blew the smoke right down the tracks and around Heimdal.
"It's drizzling and raining, so that's a good thing,” Johnson said.
Suckut said without the moisture, firefighters likely would have been battling grass fires, as well.
The cars that derailed were toward the rear end of the train, Johnson said. The decoupled section was pulled to the east.
Officials said there was some marshy land but no waterways around the low-lying tracks.
The North Dakota Department of Health and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency were monitoring air quality near the town. Wet weather kept much of the smoke close to the ground, where it had greater potential to exacerbate breathing problems.
Trevino said the tank cars involved in the incident were the unjacketed CPC-1232 models, which are targeted for phase-out by 2020 under new federal safety rules announced last Friday.
Trevino said “unjacketed” means the cars can be retrofitted with ceramic thermal wrapping to conform with the new regulations.
A statement from Sarah Feinberg, acting administrator for the Federal Railroad Administration, said the agency has deployed a 10-person investigation team 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 in the statement.
Trevino could not say definitively that the new rules would have prevented a fire.
“The new rules would have a safer tank than the ones involved in this incident. So the new rules are moving toward a safer set of circumstances,” he said in an interview.
‘Always on your mind’
Some Heimdal residents didn’t leave their homes immediately -- it took a second notification from authorities.
Arden and Linda Georgeson live about a quarter-mile north of the derailment.
“We heard a lot of noise and I saw this plume,” Arden Georgeson said. “I thought it was a tornado and I told my wife we have to get down in the basement. Then, I could see fire and we knew what it was.”
“We had planned to go to Harvey, but we didn’t know we were going to have to leave in such a hurry,” he said.
Benson, who spent the first 10 years of his life in Heimdal and moved back there in 1999 after retiring from a nearly 26-year law enforcement career in Tacoma, Wash., said he and his wife had already discussed their evacuation plan in the event of an oil train derailment.
“That’s always been in the back of my mind that something like that could happen here,” he said.
Johnson, whose grandfather homesteaded the land in the 1890s, is now retired, and Johnson Farms is operated by his sons Eric and Dean.
“I went to school in Heimdal, up to the 10th grade,” he said. “But there’s nothing left there. All the businesses are closed.”
The elevator, which was a substation of Fessenden Cooperative Association, still stands. But it’s been closed for several years.
One local church has a handful of services in the summer.
This isn’t the first train derailment Johnson has seen in the area. He recalls one about 35 years ago, a few miles to the southeast.
With oil trains passing through Heimdal all hours of the day and night, Georgeson said he wasn’t surprised one derailed here.
“It’s always on your mind,” he said.
Dalrymple praised the new tank car standards and also said he was pleased that the state Legislature last week approved a state-run rail safety program with two Public Service Commission inspectors to complement the federal inspection program.
“That allows us to investigate the things that we want to investigate and not be entirely reliant on what the federal inspectors are doing,” he said.
Nationwide, crude-by-rail shipments increased from an average of 55,000 barrels per day in 2010 to more than 1 million barrels per day in 2014, with Bakken crude making up 70 percent of last year’s volume, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
It wasn’t clear whether the crude had been treated as required by new oil conditioning standards that took effect in North Dakota on April 1, which require oil companies to remove more volatile gases from Bakken crude oil to reduce its vapor pressure. Dalrymple said such standards will help in such incidents, though he said volatility alone isn’t a major factor in whether there’s a fire.
“The ultimate answer to this challenge is pipelines, and we need pipelines out of the Bakken region,” Dalrymple said. “They need to go east through Minnesota and they need to go south as well, and the sooner we get them built and finished and get the crude oil into the pipelines, the better it’s going to be.”
North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources spokeswoman Alison Ritter said the state has seen a 99 percent compliance rate with the oil conditioning standards so far.
“I’m confident this was more than likely conditioned, but the only way to confirm that is to know which well site it came from and who the operator was,” she said.
BNSF dispatched its environmental response team and local operations team to the site. The FRA and National Transportation Safety Board also sent staff to the scene to investigate.
In addition to hazardous material response teams from Devils Lake and Grand Forks, the state Highway Patrol and firefighters from Harvey, Fessenden, Hamburg, Maddock and Devils Lake were dispatched to the derailment.
The estimated time of cleanup wasnt’ known yet, Trevino said.