Fiery Accident Spurs Safer Rail Transport For Crude Oil
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The oil boom in North America has raised a question. How do you transport that much oil safely? Well, a year ago today, a train carrying North Dakota crude derailed and exploded outside the small town of Casselton, North Dakota. This came on the heels of a deadly derailment in Quebec. These incidents were a wake-up call for trackside communities. And regulators have been trying to make it safer to transport crude oil by rail. Emily Guerin from Prairie Public Radio reports on how secure residents of Casselton, North Dakota, are feeling these days.
EMILY GUERIN, BYLINE: It was just after 2 p.m. when two trains collided in a cornfield near Casselton, a farm town of 2,500 just outside of Fargo. One was carrying soybeans. The other - crude oil from North Dakota's Bakken oil fields.
ED MCCONNELL: When I first heard about the derailment, it was actually the explosion that I heard 'cause I was coming into town to get the mail.
GUERIN: Ed McConnell was mayor of Casselton at the time. Sheriff Paul D. Laney and Fire Chief Tim McClean responded to the crash.
PAUL D. LANEY: We got just outside the city limits of West Fargo when I saw a massive fireball. And we were still 12 miles away.
TIM MCCLEAN: It was just an eerie sound, like the cars were taking their last gasp of air.
GUERIN: Amazingly, no one was hurt. Up to 40 oil trains pass through here each week, headed for refineries on the East and Gulf coasts. Fire Chief Tim McClean says before the crash, he never thought crude oil could explode like that.
MCCLEAN: We learned a lot after this. I think everybody across the United States learned a lot after this one.
GUERIN: In the year since, the U.S. Department of Transportation has begun drafting new regulations to make it safer to ship oil. Railroads have agreed to slow down trains. Oil companies say they'll begin to phase out old tanker cars. Perhaps the most significant step came earlier this month when the state of North Dakota passed rules to make the oil less flammable before it's loaded onto trains. Does any of this make anyone in Casselton feel safer?
MCCONNELL: I don't know what they're going to have to do to make me feel safer. I still - every time I see an oil train, I always wonder.
GUERIN: Former Mayor Ed McConnell says in his dream world, pipelines would replace trains. But he knows that's not going to happen any time soon. In the meantime, he still worries. But a lot of people here apparently don't. Jessica Forderer works at Hardware Hank, less than a hundred feet from the train tracks.
JESSICA FORDERER: It's just part of life.
GUERIN: The train derailment didn't phase her, even though she sought professional help for her young daughter who is traumatized by the crash.
FORDERER: The railroad was here first. The town was built around the railroad. So for us to say that they're - they shouldn't be, you know, coming through here isn't feasible either.
GUERIN: Nationwide, oil train traffic has increased nearly 50-fold since 2009. And that's likely to continue because many of the East Coast refineries that want Bakken oil can't get it by pipeline. Many people in Casselton are tired of the media attention that the train crash has brought. Former Mayor Ed McConnell worries that people might think twice about moving here.
MCCONNELL: It always was a worry of mine that we would become the poster child for a railroad oil explosion. And, you know, there's so much more to Casselton than that.
GUERIN: What Casselton should be known for, he says, are its good schools and fertile soil. He's confident that the risk posed by oil trains will be reduced, and Casselton can once again be known as safe, not just unscathed. For NPR News, I'm Emily Guerin.
GREENE: Emily's story comes to us from Inside Energy. That's a public media collaboration focused on America's energy issues.
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