Category Archives: Casselton ND

Rail industry phasing out DOT-111 tank cars involved in derailments ahead of deadline

Repost from The Jamestown Sun

Rail industry phasing out tank cars involved in Casselton derailment ahead of deadline

By John Hageman, Oct 24, 2017 12:27 p.m.
A fire from a train derailment burns uncontrollably as seen in this photograph Monday, Dec. 30, 2013, west of Casselton, N.D. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — Amid declining shipments, the rail industry is phasing out “less-safe” tank cars carrying crude oil ahead of rapidly approaching deadlines to do so.

The federally mandated deadlines to remove the DOT-111 tank cars from oil service came after several high-profile derailments involving Bakken crude. That included the deadly Lac-Megantic, Quebec, disaster in 2013 and the explosion near Casselton, N.D., later that year.

As of Jan. 1, DOT-111 cars without a protective steel layer known as a jacket can no longer carry crude oil. Those cars with the jacket must be phased out two months later.

A U.S. Department of Transportation report sent to Congress last month shows the number of those cars carrying crude oil has dropped dramatically over the past few years. In 2013, 14,337 of them carried crude oil, which sank to 366 last year.

That shift has been aided by a steep decline in Williston Basin rail exports over the past few years. A rush of activity in western North Dakota forced oil onto the tracks, but pipelines are now the dominant form of oil transportation, according to the North Dakota Pipeline Authority.

“The first phase, in terms of removing the DOT-111s … that’s moving along very nicely,” said John Byrne, vice chairman of the Railway Supply Institute’s Committee on Tank Cars. “Because there’s a surplus of cars available to take them out of service and replace them with compliant cars.”

Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said the Dakota Access Pipeline helped push oil off the tracks when it went online earlier this year. But rail shipments across the country have been declining since 2014, according to the Association of American Railroads.

The latest BNSF Railway Co. report provided by the state Department of Emergency Services, dated September, shows as many as three oil trains moved through Cass County in one week, down from a high of 56 first reached in 2014.

Pointing to increased training for first responders, DES Hazardous Chemical Officer Jeff Thompson said they’re “more comfortable with the situation than we were before.” But that doesn’t mean they’ve let their guard down.

“There’s always the fear that (it) happens in the middle of a town. And that goes with all train derailments, not just crude oil,” he said.

About 476,000 gallons of oil spilled near Casselton in late December 2013 after an oil train slammed into a derailed grain car, sparking a fireball over the snowy landscape. Residents evacuated, but there were no deaths or serious injuries, the National Transportation Safety Board said.

Oil spilled from 18 of the derailed DOT-111 cars in that incident, according to the NTSB, which “long had concerns” about the “less-safe” tank cars because they’re not puncture resistant, have relatively thin shells and lack thermal protection.

In announcing the agency’s findings on the Casselton derailment in February, the NTSB’s then-Chairman Christopher Hart said “progress toward removing or retrofitting DOT-111s has been too slow.” Thousands of those cars are still being used to carry ethanol and other flammable liquids, which have later phase-out dates, according to the transportation department’s report.

By 2029, flammable liquids can only be carried in DOT-117s, which have thicker shells and insulating material, Byrne said. The new and retrofitted versions of those cars now represent 9 percent of the fleet carrying Class 3 flammable liquids, which includes crude oil and ethanol, according the transportation department report.

“There’s been a huge improvement in the overall safety of the cars moving crude today versus what we were looking at in 2013, 2014,” Byrne said.

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    Derailed oil train’s crew told investigators they had seconds to escape

    Repost from McClatchy Washington Bureau

    Derailed oil train’s crew told investigators they had seconds to escape

    By Curtis Tate, McClatchy Washington Bureau, April 27, 2015

    The engineer and conductor on a BNSF oil train that derailed in North Dakota in December 2013 had seconds to escape their locomotive before it was engulfed by fire, according to interview transcripts made available Monday by federal accident investigators.

    The interviews, conducted in January 2014 by the National Transportation Safety Board, show the occupational risks railroad workers face, especially with trains carrying hazardous materials. The train’s engineer is suing BNSF, and says the wreck left him with post-traumatic stress disorder.

    They also show that emergency responders did not initially understand the severity of the situation they faced when two trains derailed near Casselton, N.D., on Dec. 30, 2013. One of them was carrying grain, and the other, crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region.

    The train’s engineer, Bryan Thompson, told investigators that he had only seconds to react before the oil train, traveling 43 mph, hit a derailed grain car in its path.

    He activated the emergency braking system, but he knew from nine years of experience that virtually nothing could stop the 13,335 tons of train behind him from going off the track. He told his conductor to hit the floor and brace for impact.

    “I knew what was coming,” he told investigators, “and I honestly said a prayer. It was really quick.”

    Thompson and the conductor, Pete Riepl, were not injured when the locomotive came to rest. But almost immediately, they noticed that the train was on fire, and they needed to get away. They couldn’t exit through the front of the locomotive: The impact with the overturned grain car had jammed the door.

    Their only choice was to exit through the back of the locomotive, which forced them to go toward the rapidly encroaching fire.

    “That’s the last place you want to go,” Thompson said, “ but it was our only escape.”

    Riepl told investigators that the pair got about 200 yards away before they looked back and saw that their locomotive was engulfed in flames.

    He also said that several minutes after the derailment, tank cars began exploding, in succession, one about every 10 minutes.

    Thompson left his belongings in the locomotive cab, save for his coat _ it was about 20 degrees below zero that day _ and cellphone. He called 911. The dispatcher asked him if she needed to call the local fire department.

    “I said, ‘you need to call every fire department,’” Thompson said he told the dispatcher.

    The 911 dispatcher instructed Thompson to report to the incident command center established at a local high school. Once there, Thompson said he could hear over radio chatter that people were watching the train burn. In similar situations, authorities usually recommend a half-mile evacuation radius.

    “I don’t think you understand what’s going on here,” he said he told a deputy sheriff. “You need to get those people away from there.”

    Thompson asked the deputy if he knew about the deadly oil train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people in July 2013. He told the deputy that his train was carrying the same kind of cargo: Bakken crude.

    “And his eyes got big, you know,” Thompson said, “then he said ‘Code Red’ on his radio.”

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      Investigators release records of fiery Casselton derailment

      Repost from News OK, Oklahoma City
      [Editor:  See also the NTSB Press Release, which links to the Casselton Accident Docket (79 documents).  – RS]

      Investigators release records of fiery Casselton derailment

      April 27, 2015 at 8:46 pm

      Federal investigators have released hundreds of pages of records that offer new insight into the moments just before and after a 2013 oil train derailment near Casselton, North Dakota, that created a massive fire and forced 1,400 people to evacuate for several days.

      Interviews with the BNSF Railway workers operating the two trains in the derailment are included in documents the National Transportation Safety Board posted online Monday. Federal investigators also said in the documents that a broken train axle found after the derailment might have been prevented if BNSF railroad had inspected it more carefully and found a pre-existing flaw.

      The broken axel wasn’t pinpointed as the cause of the crash, but the NTSB ordered the industry to recall 43 axles made by Standard Steel in the same 2002 batch.

      Officials have said the accident happened when a westbound freight train derailed and a portion of it fell onto an adjacent track carrying the eastbound oil train. Eighteen cars on the 106-car oil train derailed and several exploded and burned.

      In the records released Monday, the two men onboard the BNSF oil train describe losing sight of the tracks in a cloud of blowing snow shortly before seeing a derailed grain car lying across the tracks. Emergency brakes were applied, but the train was still moving 42 mph when it struck the car.

      The 18 tank cars broke open and spilled 400,000 gallons of crude oil that fueled the fire that could be seen from nearly 10 miles away. It took several weeks to clean up the remaining oil from the site 30 miles west of Fargo after the flames were extinguished.

      Everyone aboard both trains escaped unharmed. But just a couple minutes after conductor Pete Rigpl exited the oil train, he looked back to see flames engulf the locomotive he and Bryan Thompson had been in.

      “I was exiting the cab then and started to get away from all the fire. It was — the heat was intense,” Rigpl said to investigators. “I mean, the whole situation just — I was in knee-deep snow. I couldn’t get away as quickly as I would like to.”

      The two men called 911 and talked with BNSF dispatchers as they moved away from the growing fire consuming their cargo. Rigpl and Thompson told investigators they stressed the potential danger as they talked with emergency responders.

      Railroad shipments of crude oil are facing additional scrutiny and tougher regulations because there have been several fiery derailments involving the commodity in recent years. The worst happened in July 2013 and killed 47 people in a small Canadian city just across the U.S.-Canada border from Maine.

      Thompson, the oil train’s engineer, said that when he heard people were approaching the derailment to get a glimpse of the wreckage he urged a sheriff’s deputy to remove them because of the danger.

      “I don’t think he grasped what was going on until I told him, I said do you know the story of the train in Canada? I said that’s the type of train I am,” Thompson said to the NTSB. “And his eyes got big, you know, then he said Code Red on his radio. I remember that.”

      BNSF and the other major freight railroads have taken a number of steps to improve the safety of crude oil shipments, including reducing speeds in high-risk areas.

      BNSF officials did not immediately respond Monday afternoon to a request for comment about the report.

      Federal regulators are expected to release new standards for the tank cars that carry crude oil and new rules for railroad operations as soon as next month.

      The number of carloads railroads hauled nationwide increased again last year to 493,126 from 407,761 in 2013. In 2008, before the oil boom took off in the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana, as well as in Canada, railroads hauled just 9,500 carloads of crude oil.

      BNSF, which is owned by Omaha-based Berkshire Hathaway Inc., hauls most of the oil produced in the Bakken region. It is based in Fort Worth, Texas.

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        Locomotive Engineer of Exploding North Dakota “Bomb Train” Sues BNSF

        Repost from DeSmogBlog

        BNSF Engineer Who Manned Exploding North Dakota “Bomb Train” Sues Former Employer

        By Steve Horn, April 2, 2015 13:54

        A Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) employee who worked as a locomotive engineer on the company’s oil-by-rail train that exploded in rural Casselton, North Dakota in December 2013 has sued his former employer.

        Filed in Cass County North Dakota, the plaintiff Bryan Thompson alleges he “was caused to suffer and continues to suffer severe and permanent injuries and damages,” including but not limited to ongoing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) issues.

        Thompson’s attorney, Thomas Flaskamp, told DeSmogBlog he “delayed filing [the lawsuit until now] primarily to get an indication as to the direction of where Mr. Thompson’s care and treatment for his PTSD arising out of the incident was heading,” which he says is still being treated by a psychiatrist.

        The lawsuit is the first of its kind in the oil-by-rail world, the only time to date that someone working on an exploding oil train has taken legal action against his employer using the Federal Employers’ Liability Act.

        BNSF Engineer Casselton Lawsuit

        Image Credit: State of North Dakota District Court; East Central Judicial District

        “Run for His Life”

        In the aftermath of the Casselton explosion, rail industry consultant Sheldon Lustig told the Associated Press that freight trains carrying oil obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale basin are akin to “bomb trains,” putting the now oft-used term on the map for the first time. 

        Since Casselton, several other oil-by-rail explosions and disasters have ensued in the U.S. 

        Thompson experienced the wrath of an exploding “bomb train” up close and personal. 

        Flaskamp told The Forum newspaper in Fargo, North Dakota that Thompson had to “run for his life” to escape the train he was manning once it derailed after colliding with an oncoming grain train.

        Behind him, tank cars were starting to derail, catch fire and explode,” Flaskamp told The Forum of Thompson, who is in his 30s and is currently in school to obtain a teaching degree.

        The plaintiffs allege BNSF, owned by multi-billionaire Warren Buffett, violated the Federal Employers’ Liability Act in multiple ways.

        They include “failing and neglecting to provide [Thompson] with a reasonably safe place to work” and “failing to warn [him] of the dangers of hauling explosive oil tank railcars and the tendencies of these railcars to rupture and explode upon suffering damage.”

        BNSF Employee Casselton Lawsuit
        Image Credit: State of North Dakota District Court; East Central Judicial District

        BNSF‘s Knowledge

        In the aftermath of the Casselton explosion, DeSmogBlog reported that the company that owned the terminal intended to receive that oil — which owns a facility in Missouri that off-loads the oil into barges in the Mississippi River — notified the Missouri government on its permit application that the oil it planned to handle has high levels of volatile chemicals.

        Put another way, BNSF may have known quite a bit more about the danger of carrying Bakken fracked oil than it ever told Thompson. And that will likely serve as a contentious point in the case as it snakes its way forward in Cass County court.

        BNSF knew or should have known of the dangerous nature of the cargo it required its crews to transport and should have exercised great care in its transport,” Flaskamp told DeSmogBlog. “The Answer to the complaint which will be filed by the BNSF will be telling as to their theories of defense.”

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