Fiery North Dakota train derailment fuels oil-shipping fears – by Grant Robertson (Globe and Mail – December 31, 2013)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

Dense columns of black smoke rose from the North Dakota plains after a train carrying more than 100 cars of crude oil derailed and exploded in a massive fireball Monday, forcing officials to evacuate residents of a nearby town.

The derailment, which caused a roiling ball of flame that could be seen more than a kilometre away, is the third major incident involving an oil-laden train in less than six months, starting with the deadly derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Que., this summer, which killed 47 people and destroyed much of the town.

Similar to the Lac-Mégantic disaster, the train that derailed Monday was carrying crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken fields. The cargo exploded after the train collided with another train carrying soy beans, which had gone off the tracks. Residents in nearby Casselton, N.D., reported seeing flames shooting more than 30 metres in the air, and hearing at least six loud explosions. As crews battled the blaze Monday night, authorities were ordering residents to stay indoors to avoid the toxic fumes, and were preparing to evacuate at least 300 people.

Terry Johnson, the manager of a grain dealer roughly a kilometre from the blast, said the explosion rattled his business and has covered Casselton in smoke. “You could hear the explosion,” he said. “It shook our building and there was a huge fireball.”

The derailment comes at a time when there are growing concerns about shipping oil by rail. Amid tight pipeline capacity, large amounts of crude oil have started to be shipped on trains throughout the United States and Canada in the past few years. But there are mounting questions about a lack of regulations overseeing the industry.

On July 6, a train carrying 72 cars of crude oil from North Dakota derailed in Lac-Mégantic causing deadly explosions that destroyed much of the downtown and fires that burned for four days. It was the worst rail accident in Canadian history.

In November, a 90-car oil train derailed in rural Alabama, causing 11 crude tankers to erupt in fireballs similar to the Lac-Mégantic disaster. Fire crews said they were lucky the train derailed in an unpopulated area given the size of the blasts.

After the disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board said it was “unusual” for oil to erupt so violently. But Monday’s derailment in North Dakota raises new questions about the ongoing threat posed by derailments of trains carrying crude.

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