After touring the site of this week’s oil train derailment and fire in North Dakota Friday, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said that the volunteer firefighters who responded to the incident were “very prepared” for it because of training they received last year.
BNSF, the operator of the 109-car oil train that derailed on Wednesday in Heimdal, N.D., trained more than 1,000 firefighters in North Dakota in 2014, according to the company.
Heitkamp met with the firefighters who responded to the derailment. She said they told her the incident unfolded exactly as they’d been told it would.
“With each one of these things, we learn a little bit more and we get a little bit better,” Heitkamp said in a phone interview.
More than 90 percent of North Dakota’s firefighters are volunteers, according to a 2012 survey by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The U.S. average is 71 percent.
The state has become the second leading oil producer in the nation behind Texas, and most of that volume moves beyond its borders via rail. And with that increase in rail traffic has come an increase in accidents. Wednesday’s derailment was the second major incident in North Dakota in the past 18 months.
On Dec. 30, 2013, a BNSF oil train derailed and caught fire near Casselton, N.D. More than half of the town’s 2,500 residents evacuated as several tank cars exploded in giant fireballs, with thick black smoke pouring into the air.
“A lot of burden is being put on rural volunteer firefighters,” Heitkamp said. “We pushed very hard after Casselton for localized training.”
After the Casselton derailment, railroads, including BNSF, stepped up their own training of first responders, from local classes to an advanced firefighting academy in Pueblo, Colo.
In the Senate, Heitkamp called for more federal support for first responders, and she introduced a bill with that goal in February. It has six co-sponsors.
As Heitkamp met Friday with representatives from federal agencies, the railroad and Hess Corp., the owner of the oil, several BNSF trains passed the wreck site on track that had just reopened. Heimdal’s roughly two dozen residents were allowed to return home on Thursday.
Including Wednesday’s derailment, there have been five serious oil train accidents in North America this year.
“We shouldn’t wait for something like this to happen to make the training a priority,” Heikamp said.