By Patrick Springer
CASSELTON, N.D. — Tim McLean was fixing a truck on his farm when his pager beeped to summon him to duty as a volunteer firefighter.
As McLean drove to the scene, the billowing black smoke visible from miles away told him he was about to confront the worst fire he’d seen in his 29 years of service — an oil train had derailed a mile west of here on Dec. 30, 2013.
Once on scene, there was little McLean and the other emergency responders could do, knowing the crew had escaped safely and no lives or property were threatened, but stand back and watch.
Each time a ruptured tanker exploded and shot flames hundreds of feet in the sky, the firefighters felt a pulse of heat on their faces. Hours later, the fire burned itself out.
A year later, reverberations from the derailment continue to spur changes. The mayor of Casselton, a farming community of almost 2,400, later would say the town had “dodged a bullet.”
The same could be said in Fargo, about 18 track miles to the east, and cities all around the nation along rail routes transformed into mobile pipelines carrying large shipments of volatile Bakken crude oil.
Actions prompted by the disaster include increased training for first responders, still-pending new standards to make rail tanker cars more resistant to punctures and upgrades by BNSF Railway of an accident-prone, seven-mile stretch of track running through Casselton.
“I think there’s been a lot of progress made in a year,” said McLean, who is the Casselton fire chief.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes.”
Congress is pushing federal regulators to issue proposed new regulations for rail tanker cars, both for a new generation of tankers and to retrofit older models. Safety experts have warned for years about the most common rail tanker being susceptible to puncture.
A funding bill puts pressure on the U.S. Department of Transportation to issue new standards for older tank cars that will be phased out of service or upgraded by Jan. 15.
That’s a deadline Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., believe will be met, but both say shippers and railroads need certainty from Washington about what will be deemed an acceptable standard.
“We’ve got to transition to new cars,” said Hoeven, who added he’s been pushing for better tank cars for two years, as well as expanded pipeline capacity to move crude oil.
Heitkamp also is frustrated that the new standards are not in place, though she said it’s important to have the right standard.
“Do I wish we had a tank standard right now?” she asked. “Absolutely. I don’t know why things take so long.”
Federal funds helped to train first responders at a training center near Pueblo, Colo., a provision pushed by Heitkamp. So far, more than 60 firefighters or other responders from North Dakota have signed up.
“It seemed clear to me we needed access to specialized training,” including some available locally, Heitkamp said.
Despite the clamor for expanded pipeline capacity to reduce the need for oil trucks and trains, she said rail transport of crude likely will continue because of the flexibility it provides, including access to coastal refineries that often pay a higher price.
“I don’t think it’s temporary,” Heitkamp said. “I think this is something we’re going to live with a lot of years.”
Firefighters in Fargo, West Fargo and Casselton are among those who have received special training in responding to crude oil derailments.
“We’ve had a lot of support to make things better and provide more training,” said Fargo Fire Chief Steve Dirksen, who serves on a task force assembled by Heitkamp to address challenges posed by the oil and gas boom.
Since the Casselton derailment, BNSF has staged additional equipment and supplies in Fargo. It also has helped to train first responders.
Earlier this year, BNSF and the rail industry agreed to added steps to reduce the risk of moving crude, including lower speeds through urban areas and increased track inspections.
A train derailment near Casselton on Nov. 13, which involved some empty oil tank cars, underscored the importance of being prepared — and of upgrading the track and conducting more inspections on a seven-mile stretch of track.
That accident involved newer tank cars that did not puncture. Although encouraging, Dirksen and McLean agreed the empty cars did not provide a complete test of the newer cars.
“There is something about Casselton that we need to pay attention to,” Heitkamp said.
Five derailments have occurred on two BNSF lines in the 10 miles between Casselton and Wheatland in the past decade.
The November derailment was caused by what BNSF said was an “undetectable internal defect” in the track that failed as the train passed.
“BNSF remains committed to further improving rail safety and to our vision of preventing accidents before they occur,” BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said, adding that the railroad spent $400 million in North Dakota this year on expansion, maintenance and track replacement.
Efforts resulted in “significant reductions in incidents,” she said, and 2013 was BNSF’s safest year on record.
“I know they’re working hard and doing a lot of inspections on that track,” said McLean. BNSF inspectors and repair crews can be seen working on the track in the Casselton area, he said.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s budget recommendations for 2015-17 include funding for new state rail and pipeline inspection programs, proposals legislators must approve.
The North Dakota Industrial Commission has adopted new requirements, effective April 1, for “conditioning” crude oil before shipment to remove volatile gases.
A year after the Casselton derailment, have the combined efforts made rail transport of crude oil safer?
“I don’t know that I can say that,” Dirksen said. “I think steps are being made to make it safer.”
Hoeven agreed. “We are making progress,” he said. “We are not where we need to be yet.