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December 31, 2013

Safety questions after N. Dakota oil train derailment

CASSELTON, N.D. — A fiery oil train derailment's near-miss of a small North Dakota town had its mayor angrily calling for federal officials to do more to guarantee the safety of the nation's growing shipment of oil by rail.

Government regulators defended their record on moving hazardous materials by rail, noting that 2012 was the safest year in the industry's history. But oil trains have bucked that trend, thanks in part to the massive amount of oil being moved out of western North Dakota, where the industry's rapid growth is far outpacing pipeline development.

No one was hurt when the mile-long BNSF Railway train derailed Monday afternoon near the eastern North Dakota town of Casselton, but the overturned tankers — exploding and engulfed in plumes of flames and black smoke for more than 24 hours — burned so hot that emergency crews didn't even attempt to put out the blaze. Most of Casselton's roughly 2,400 residents agreed to temporarily evacuate due to concerns about unsafe air.

"This is too close for comfort," Casselton Mayor Ed McConnell said Tuesday.

While the overall rate of oil train accidents remains low — less than 0.1 percent of crude-carrying tank cars have suffered accidental releases this year — there's been a sharp increase in the number of releases over the past several years. That's driven by a surge in drilling for unconventional shale oil in North Dakota and other western states.

Through early November, the most recent data available, crude releases have been reported from 137 rail cars in 2013, according to an Associated Press analysis of federal accident records. By comparison, only one release was reported in 2009, before the boom got well underway.

The rail tracks in eastern North Dakota run through the middle of Casselton, about 25 miles west of Fargo. McConnell estimated that dozens of people could have been killed if the derailments had happened within the town.

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