USA: North Dakota town hit by oil blaze fumes

A plume of smoke rises from the crude oil blaze. Picture: Reuters
A plume of smoke rises from the crude oil blaze. Picture: Reuters
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AUTHORITIES urged residents to flee a US town after a mile-long train carrying crude oil derailed, shaking residents with explosions that sent flames and black, hazardous smoke into the sky.

The Cass County Sheriff’s Office said the National Weather Service was forecasting a change in conditions. “That’s going to put the plume right over the top of Casselton,” Sheriff Paul Laney said. The town has about 2,400 residents.

No-one was hurt in Monday’s derailment, and the cause was being investigated yesterday.

About two-thirds of the town’s residents had left their homes, Sheriff’s Deputy Joe Crawford said yesterday.

The derailment in North Dakota, the country’s second oil-producing state, happened amid heightened concerns about the United States’ increased reliance on rail to carry crude oil.

Fears of catastrophic derailments rose after the July crash in a Quebec town of a runaway train carrying crude from North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch. Forty-seven people died in the ensuing fire.

The number of crude oil wagonloads hauled by US railways surged from 10,840 in 2009 to a projected 400,000 this year. Despite the increase, the rate of accidents has stayed relatively steady. Railways say 99.997 percent of hazardous material shipments reach their destinations safely.

North Dakota’s state’s top oil regulator has said he expected as much as 90 per cent of the state’s oil would be carried by train in 2014, up from the current 60 per cent.

Investigators could not get close to the burning train outside Casselton. The BNSF Railway said it believes about 20 wagons caught fire after its train left the tracks. The sheriff’s office said it thinks ten were on fire.

The National Transportation Safety Board said it has appointed a team to investigate the accident.

The railway tracks pass through the middle of Casselton, and Cass County Sheriff’s Sergeant Tara Morris said it was “a blessing it didn’t happen within the city”.

Ms Morris said it could take up to 12 hours before authorities could get close to the fire.

Sheriff Laney said yesterday that ten to 12 cars of the 106-wagon oil train were still burning about a mile west of Casselton. No injuries were reported.

About 65 per cent of the 2,300 residents left under a non-mandatory evacuation, Mr Laney said, adding that local authorities had carried out drills for such emergencies. “The main areas that are real hot areas that we were worried about are pretty well empty,” he said.

In the initial hours, authorities told residents to stay indoors to avoid the smoke.

Hannah Linnard, 13, said she was at her friend’s house about half a mile from the derailment. “I looked out the window and all of a sudden the train car tipped over and the whole thing was engulfed in flames and it just exploded. The oil car tipped over on to the grain car,” she said.

She said she could feel the heat even inside the house.