By Bryan Horwath and Katherine Lymn
GLADSTONE — Every time he steps out of his residence, Derrick Voigt has a clear view of the railroad tracks that slice through this small southwest North Dakota town.
Though he lays his head down at night about 500 feet from passing trains featuring cars packed with Bakken crude oil, Voigt said he doesn’t worry about a Casselton-like disaster occurring in Gladstone.
“I’ve heard about what happened (in Casselton) and I believe there recently was something like that that happened in Canada,” Voigt said. “But it’s not something that I’m worried about happening here. I would think the chances of that happening would be very small.”
Similar to explosive derailments that occurred last year in Quebec and Alabama, Monday’s fiery train collision in Casselton — which did not cause any reported injuries — has again brought train safety issues to the forefront of the national energy transport debate.
Echoing the sentiments of some of North Dakota’s most powerful politicians, Voigt said he has a simple solution that would limit expensive — and, at times, deadly — oil train derailments and collisions.
“I think they should just move the oil by pipeline,” Voigt said. “It just seems like that would make more sense. That Keystone XL pipeline should have been approved years ago.”
North Dakota transported more than 700,000 barrels of oil per day by rail in October, North Dakota Pipeline Authority director Justin Kringstad said in his most recent update.
Since 1964, Edwin and Eva Hecker have lived just steps from the railroad tracks in their home along Broadway Street in Dickinson. Like Voigt, the Heckers said they aren’t losing sleep worrying about a derailed train tanker exploding in their front yard.
“I’m not very concerned about it,” Edwin Hecker said. “To tell you the truth, before the Casselton incident, it wasn’t something that ever crossed my mind. In all the years we’ve lived here, I don’t ever remember a train accident or derailment here in town.”
On Thursday, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a safety alert to the public stating that Bakken crude oil may be more flammable that other, more traditional types of oil, a point Edwin said he was already familiar with because of what he was told by an oil industry worker.
“I suppose something could happen here,” Eva Hecker said. “But, even if it did, what could we do about it? There are accidents that happen every day, especially on our roadways. I don’t feel any less safe here than anyone else.”
Edwin Hecker said he has traveled by a railroad underpass in Dickinson in the past and wondered what happen if a train were to derail there, stating “it could cause a lot of damage.” He added that he assumes rail tankers filled with oil sit idle in Dickinson for periods of time.
Dickinson Fire Department Chief Robert Sivak said it’s normal to see rail cars idling because Dickinson has a railyard and isn’t just a passthrough line.
“They can be anything from compressed gas to an acid car. It might be a crude oil car,” Sivak said. “When they’re sitting there, they may be empty or they may be full but they’re static. They’re not moving.”
The idle cars would only be a danger if something goes awry, he said, like an accident, vandalism or act of nature. But for the most part, they’re no more dangerous than a tanker being hauled by a semi truck, Sivak said.
The crude being transported through Casselton on Dec. 30 originated at the Great Northern Midstream rail terminal in Fryburg, according to National Transportation Safety Board officials. Great Northern administrator Cynthia Severson said Thursday that all questions about the Casselton collision and the state of operations at the Fryburg terminal were to be directed to the NTSB, as instructed by BNSF.
“For all of our customers in all industries,” stated BNSF spokesperson Amy McBeth in an email. “We do not typically discuss them or their individual businesses.”
The possibility of a local rail disaster doesn’t seem to have many in the southwest part of the state shaking in their boots, even though the latest North American train derailment and subsequent explosion has some — including Keystone XL pipeline proponent Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. — calling for improved safety measures.
“I’d be more worried about driving on the roads here,” said Travis Moser, who along with the Heckers, lives directly across from the train tracks in Dickinson. “I’m from Superior (Wis.) and I’ve usually always lived near railroad tracks. Anything can happen, but I’ve never been worried about train derailments.” ___