Burlington Northern oil train explodes and burns in Casselton, ND

At 2:12 pm on December 30, 2013, a Burlington Northern (BNSF) train pulling more than 100 tanker cars full of of crude oil extracted from the Bakken formation in North Dakota collided with another BNSF train carrying grain outside of Casselton, ND. Apparently, one of the trains derailed before the collision, but there have been conflicting reports about whether the initially derailed train was the grain train or the oil train.

The result has been a series of explosions and towering flames shooting more than 100 feet into the air as the fire continues to burn and more of the cars reach explosive temperatures. The flames and explosions have been accompanied by dense clouds of thick black smoke easily visible from Fargo, about 25 miles from Casselton.

First responders were able to detach about 40 of the oil-filled cars from the train, but the flames and explosions have prevented access to the rest. The current course of action is to allow the train to burn itself out. No effort can be made to contain the smoke or other hazardous material, though firefighters are standing by in safe areas to prevent the flames from spreading outside of the containment zone.

Authorities have strongly recommended an evacuation of Casselton, which is just a mile away from the crash scene. Everyone within a 10 mile radius of the accident has been warned to remain indoors.

CNN has covered the story as breaking news.

The version of the CNN report that I watched included video submitted by a passerby. The raw footage of that on scene video had been submitted to a local TV station. For reasons that will be obvious once you watch the raw version of the video, CNN added its own sound track.

Not surprisingly, it is darned cold in North Dakota at the end of December. According to the on scene reporter from the local TV station, it was below zero (Fahrenheit) in the middle of the afternoon. The soundtrack of the amateur video includes a complaint from a child in the car who is — quite logically — more concerned about being cold than about his dad’s effort to record documentation of a newsworthy fire and series of explosions. Overnight temperatures are forecast to be 20 below zero (Fahrenheit). It is therefore extremely important for all evacuees to find adequate shelter.

As is often the case with an event like this one, local news outlets are often the best source of detailed coverage. ValleyNewsLive.com has produced some excellent video and articles about the event that are worth watching and reading. One of the pieces includes some arial footage shot during the afternoon showing the stark contrast between the flames, the dense black smoke and the snow covered grain fields. The page is being regularly updated for those who are interested in following the story as it develops.

Valley News also published a piece titled Health Effects Of Breathing Oil Fire Smoke. Here is a quote from that article.

The Minnesota Department of Health says toxic gases can be found in oil smoke, such as hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide.

Both gases can cause eye and nose irritation, decreased heart function, and increased airway reactivity.

Immediate side effects from inhaling large amounts of oil smoke are also breathing-related, including coughing, wheezing, increased airway resistance, and respiratory infections.

It may also worsen existing health conditions.

But there is no evidence that exposure to the smoke greatly increases a person’s cancer risk, because exposure to the smoke is typically very short in most cases.

Aside: The fact that there is no evidence of cancer risk might be due to a failure to look hard to find it. There has not been an extensive, steadily funded effort for smoke doses akin to the Radiation Effects Research Foundation’s (RERF) Life Span Study (LSS) of Japanese atomic bomb survivors. The LSS has been in progress for nearly 60 years. Throughout that period, RERF has been funding researchers tasked with documenting any evidence that they might find suggesting a link between radiation exposure and cancer. End Aside

It is important to understand that North Dakota has recently moved into second place among US states — behind Texas — in terms of oil production. As much as 90% of that production is moved from the Bakken Formation to refineries by rail; unlike traditional oil producing states like Texas, California, Oklahoma and Louisiana, North Dakota does not have an extensive crude oil pipeline infrastructure.

As one of my Twitter followers noted with regard to this event:

The point here is not to spread fears about the fact that an increasing amount of crude oil is traveling by rail, but to raise awareness that all energy sources have risks that need to be intelligently recognized, minimized and mitigated. Though energy conservation is a useful response, so is increasing the use of safer, less polluting sources and increasing the use of improved transportation systems.

Of course, moving crude oil and other hydrocarbon products by rail is a lucrative source of increasing revenue for BNSF. It will be interesting to watch how this event is covered and to see how quickly it falls off of the media’s radar screen.

I predict that the ad supported media will quickly find other topics to capture the public’s attention.

Additional reading

Billings Gazette Residents told to leave homes in tiny N.D. town rocked by crude oil derailment

Huffington Post Train Derailment Causes Fiery Destruction In Casselton, ND

The Guardian (December 30, 2013) North Dakota oil train crash sparks fireball: Scramble to contain fire and spill after incident that will amplify concerns about safety of carrying crude by rail

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