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Vol. 78/No. 2      January 20, 2014

 
Profit drive of oil, rail bosses
behind train wreck in ND
(lead article)
 
BY FRANK FORRESTAL  
MINNEAPOLIS — Shortly after noon on Dec. 30 a mile-long train loaded with highly flammable light crude collided with a derailed grain train outside Casselton, N.D., 25 miles west of Fargo. The crash triggered a series of explosions that sent a massive plume of toxic smoke into the air and led to the evacuation of much of the town of 2,400. The train was ferrying 3.5 million gallons of oil from the Bakken shale region of North Dakota to an oil terminal along the Mississippi River in Hayti, Mo.

The explosion was the third in six months involving trains carrying light crude from the Bakken fields, highlighting the disregard for safety of workers and those who live near the tracks by the oil and railroad bosses in their efforts to reap maximum profits.

“We would have easily lost 100 people,” Casselton Mayor Ed McCon-nell told the Associated Press. “We dodged a bullet by having it out of town, but this is too close for comfort.”

Both trains were run by the BNSF Railway Co., which hauls nearly two-thirds of all crude shipments from North Dakota. The inferno from the derailment was so intense that emergency crews couldn’t get close enough to put out the blaze. Residents from the town reported hearing explosions for hours after the collision.

Trains from the Bakken fields are referred to as “bomb trains” by some engineers and other crew, rail consultant Sheldon Lustig told Associated Press.

The most recent collision follows two others carrying crude from the Bakken fields. In July, a train derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and destroying most of the town of 5,900. According to the Globe and Mail, “It was the worst rail accident in Canadian history.” The railway had been granted special dispensation to run with a one-person crew “in order to save costs.”

Last November, a 90-car oil train from the Bakken fields derailed near Aliceville, Alabama, causing uncontrollable firebombs like those in Casselton. The derailment took place on a rail trestle over a rural swamp and didn’t lead to any fatalities.

Shale oil production soars

There has been a rapid growth of rail transport of light crude from North Dakota since vertical fracking techniques opened the Bakken shale region over the last decade. “Workplace accidents increased so dramatically that North Dakota now has the highest rate of job fatalities in the U.S.,” the Globe and Mail reported, four times the national average.

According to Oilprice.com, North Dakota is producing as much oil as Azerbaijan, close to 1 million barrels a day. In 2008 not a single barrel of oil from North Dakota was shipped by rail. Nearly 400,000 tanker carloads were shipped last year. Many of these trains travel through major population centers like Fargo and Minneapolis.

About 85 percent of the 92,000 tanker cars that carry flammable liquids, including those on the derailed train in Casselton, are older DOT-111 models, prone to puncture and corrosion. In 2009, following an ethanol train crash in Illinois, recommendations for additional reinforcement were adopted, but the Association of American Railroads reported in November that only 14,000 cars have been built or retrofitted to include a thicker puncture-resistant shell or jacket, extra protective heat shields on both ends of the tank car and improved pressure release valves.

Three days after the Casselton explosions, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a “safety alert to notify the general public, emergency responders and shippers and carriers that recent derailments and resulting fires indicate that the type of crude oil being transported from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude oil.”

As light crude sits in the cars, it tends to stratify, leaving the lightest at the top, where it can vaporize, creating explosive conditions. In addition, the region’s oil tends to be contaminated with impurities, some in the oil itself and some introduced by chemicals used in the fracking process that can enhance its flammability and corrosive effects.

In December North Dakota state officials were planning to issue a report highlighting the safety of moving oil by rail — to “dispel the myth” that oil is “somehow an explosive, really dangerous thing.” These same officials quickly dropped that plan Jan. 2 in the aftermath of Casselton.

As we go to press, another train exploded into a massive inferno. A Canadian National Railway train carrying propane and crude oil derailed the evening of Jan. 7 near Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, about 31 miles from the U.S. border with Maine. No one was injured but 45 nearby homes were evacuated.
 
 
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