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View of the train derailment outside Heimdal, North Dakota. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Willis.

Update: ND town evacuated after oil train explosion

Wednesday morning at around 7:30 a.m. a portion of a 109-car oil train derailed near a small North Dakota town in Wells County, resulting in large fire involving numerous tank cars, prompting the evacuation of Heimdal and the surrounding area.

The Burlington Northern Sante Fe train hauling Bakken crude went off the tracks about two miles outside the unincorporated community. As of the 2010 census, Heimdal, located between Harvey and New Rockford, had a population of 27. The town is currently home to about 40 people.

Residents have been ordered to stay clear of the area. No injuries or fatalities have been reported. Via Twitter, Federal Railroad Administration Acting Administrator Sarah Feinberg said, “We are aware of crude derailment and resulting fire near Heimdal, ND. We have investigators on their way. Will update when we know more.”

Wells County Emergency Manager Tammy Roehrich issued a statement saying that eight cars had derailed, and as of 11:30 a.m., six of them were burning. North Dakota Department of Emergency Services Fire Public Information Officer Cecily Fong reported that 10 of the tanker cars were on fire. BNSF spokesman Michael Trevino was unable to confirm the number of cars burning, reports the Forum News Service.

Crews from the surrounding cities of Devils Lake, Fessenden, Maddock and Harvey have been called in to respond to the scene. Regional hazardous material response teams from Grand Forks and Devils Lake are also on site. It was not immediately clear how emergency response officials planned to respond to the fire. Fong told Reuters that “in the past we’ve just let these burn out.” BNSF spokesperson Amy McBeth said the tank cars involved in the derailment were unjacketed CPC-1232 models, which recently replaced the outdated and puncture prone DOT-111 models.

The North Dakota Department of Emergency Services reports that the other train cars have been detached and moved away from the scene. Two of the train cars were ‘buffer cars’ filled with sand. WDAY reports that Roehrich wasn’t able to get close enough to determine if the tankers were exploding or just burning, adding that it looked much like the derailment that occurred in Casselton, North Dakota, in late 2013.

Rep. Kevin Cramer visited the scene of the derailment and noted that it “was rather undramatic. While there was fire, it didn’t spread from car to car. The fire itself diminished rather quickly to the point where it looked like it was just smoldering by the time I got there at 1:30 p.m. It was much less dramatic than the scene at Casselton.”

The derailment comes days after the U.S. and Canada agreed upon new, overarching regulations for railroad oil tankers. The new rules include speed restrictions, phasing out older tanker cars and adding electronic braking systems. These rules would take the newer CPC-1232 tank car models out of commission within five years. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx called the new rules “a comprehensive approach to safety that will prevent accidents from happening, mitigate them if they do and facilitate emergency response.”

Commenting on how the incident will affect the recently updated rail safety regulations, Cramer said, “It will be a reminder and validate the need for new safety rules which we’ve been requesting for a long time … that’s not to say that the rules won’t need to be tweaked here and there based on experience, though. The timing of [the derailment] is such that it’s one more incident and one more case study to put into the mix as we monitor the rule and how it impacts the movement of hazardous materials, specifically Bakken crude, by rail.”

Heimdal is situated along one of the main arteries for crude-by-rail shipments running through the state. Since 2008, oil being hauled by rail has increased nearly 4,000 percent. Approximately two thirds of the crude oil produced in the Bakken region is transported by railway, the majority of which travels to refineries located on the U.S. East Coast.

In a statement, Feinberg said, “The FRA has deployed a 10 person investigation team to the site and will be conducting a thorough investigation into the cause of the accident. 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.”

Despite the various outcries over crude shipments by rail, though, Cramer believes this is further evidence of the need for the expansion of infrastructure. While 99.9 percent of oil transported by rail reaches its destination safely, its the remaining 0.01 percent that cause for concern. Cramer said, “I don’t think there’s any question that [this incident] speaks volumes for the need of a more diversified transportation system. We’re always going to need rail … but there’s a major imbalance. If we’re looking for the Bakken to grow and produce more oil we need to have markets for it to go to and a means of transportation to get it there. I don’t see us clogging up the railway with a lot more, so clearly we need more pipelines.”

Updated 3:15 p.m., May 7, 2015.

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