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
HEIMDAL, N.D. — An
oil train derailed and caught fire early Wednesday in a
rural area of central North Dakota, prompting the
evacuation of a nearby town where about 20 people live.
No injuries were reported in the accident about 7:30
a.m. near Heimdal, about 115 miles northeast of
Bismarck. Ten tanker cars on the BNSF Railway train
caught fire, creating thick black smoke, state Emergency
Services spokeswoman Cecily Fong said.
Firefighters from four area communities responded, and
regional hazardous materials teams from Grand Forks and
Devils Lake went to the scene, Fong said. Ten
investigators from the Federal Railroad Administration
were traveling to the area, said spokesman Kevin
Thompson. The National Transportation Safety Board also
was sending a team.
The Environmental Protection Agency was sending someone
to gauge any contamination to waterways in the vicinity,
spokesman Rich Mylott said. The rail line through
Heimdal runs next to an intermittent waterway known as
the Big Slough, which drains into the James River about
15 miles downstream near Bremen, North Dakota.
There were preliminary indications that some oil from
the derailed cars got into Big Slough, but it will be
difficult to verify until the fire dies down and
officials can get closer to the scene, State
Environmental Health Chief Dave Glatt said. In a similar
incident outside Casselton in December 2013, almost all
of the spilled oil was consumed in the fire, he said.
The Health Department was monitoring air quality and
advising people not to breathe in the smoke. The danger
from the smoke is mainly the particles it contains such
as ash, not toxic chemicals, Glatt said.
The train had 109 cars, 107 with crude oil and two
buffer cars between the tankers and engine that were
loaded with sand, BNSF said. It was unclear how many
derailed. There was no immediate word on the cause or on
the source of the oil the train was carrying. A
statement from BNSF did not cite the source, and
officials did not immediately return calls.
Curt Benson, a 68-year-old retired sheriff, said he was
getting ready for the day when the explosion outside
town rattled his house. With the large number of oil
trains that come through the community each day, he
figured that was the cause.
"I got in my car, still in my underwear, had shaving
cream on my face, and drove down there," he said.
After seeing about half a dozen derailed cars on fire he
alerted authorities, who he said took about half an hour
to get to the rural area. Rainfall likely stopped the
fire from spreading to nearby grassland in the meantime,
"It could have been a lot more devastating had it been
dry," he said.
The rain might have also helped wash some of the
particles out of the smoke, though it might keep the
plume closer to the ground and more likely to be
encountered by people, Glatt said.
Since 2006, the U.S. and Canada have seen at least 24
oil train accidents involving a fire, derailment or
significant amount of fuel spilled, according to federal
accident records reviewed by The Associated Press. The
derailment Wednesday was the fifth this year and comes
less than a week after the Department of Transportation
announced a rule to toughen construction standards for
tens of thousands of tank cars that haul oil and other
FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg said in a statement
that the accident was "yet another reminder" of the need
for changes that have been resisted by the oil industry,
which says it will take years to get the unsafe tank
cars replaced or off the tracks.
BNSF said the tank cars that derailed were constructed
under a 2011 voluntary rail industry standard intended
to make them tougher than older cars that were long
known to pose a safety risk. But the new cars have
proved equally dangerous. The five major oil train
accidents so far this year in the U.S. and Canada all
involved the newer cars, each of which can hold about
30,000 gallons of fuel.
Roughly 22,000 of the cars are in service hauling crude
oil and must be retrofitted or replaced by 2020 under
the new federal rule. Cars hauling ethanol, another fuel
involved in multiple accidents, have a longer timeline
It was not immediately known if the oil had been
processed under the state's new rules that were meant to
reduce the volatility of North Dakota crude by stripping
out gases that can easily ignite, Thompson said. North
Dakota officials have said the rules would make the
volatility of treated oil comparable to gasoline.
Critics have said the state's requirements were too lax
and insufficient to prevent major fires.
>>SPECIAL SECTION: OIL ON THE RAILS