Economy

Oil train derails in North Dakota, days after feds unveil new rules

This photo provided by Curt Bemson shows smoke and fire coming from an oil train that derailed Wednesday, May 6, 2015 in Heimdal, North Dakota. Officials say ten tanker cars on the BNSF caught fire prompting the evacuation of Heimdal where about three dozen people live. No injuries were reported.
This photo provided by Curt Bemson shows smoke and fire coming from an oil train that derailed Wednesday, May 6, 2015 in Heimdal, North Dakota. Officials say ten tanker cars on the BNSF caught fire prompting the evacuation of Heimdal where about three dozen people live. No injuries were reported. AP

WASHINGTON A BNSF train carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire in North Dakota Wednesday, only days after the federal government rolled out new regulations intended to improve the safety of such shipments.

Wednesday’s incident, near Heimdal, N.D., is the fifth serious oil train derailment in North America this year. It demonstrates again how oil by rail, which has expanded dramatically in just a few years, has outpaced the ability of industry and regulators to ensure the product moves safely.

It’s also likely to renew calls by supporters of the Keystone XL pipeline to build the project, held up by the Obama administration. And it could worsen the tension between the oil industry, which has pressed railroads to keep trains from derailing, and the rail industry, which has called on its oil customers to build safer tank cars.

Advocates of making the crude more stable before it’s shipped by removing flammable gases such as propane and butane will likely seize on this latest incident. And the derailment could pressure the government to require the disclosure of more information about the shipments to emergency responders and the public, data the railroads would prefer to not share.

BNSF, a wholly owned subsidiary of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, said in a statement Wednesday that the train consisted of 107 cars built since 2011 to an industry-approved standard that falls short of the one the government announced last week.

The railroad didn’t say where the train was going, but BNSF supplies refineries in the mid-Atlantic states and the Pacific Northwest with crude oil from North Dakota.

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced a tougher standard for tank cars carrying flammable liquids. The new cars will have more puncture resistance and better fire protection. Rail car manufacturers must start building tank cars to the new standard in October, and it will take several years to retrofit or replace existing cars that aren’t compliant.

The cars, called DOT-111s or CPC-1232s, have been involved in every derailment since the beginning of the year, and they’ve sustained similar kinds of damage from punctures and fire exposure.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which in January added tank cars to its “Most Wanted” list of safety improvements, said Wednesday that it would send a team of investigators to North Dakota.

The Federal Railroad Administration said Wednesday that it was sending 10 of its investigators to the site.

Acting Administrator Sarah Feinberg said in a statement that the agency “will continue to look at all options available to us tob improve safety and mitigate risks.”

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