LATEST DERAILMENT: Fiery train derailment prompts evacuation of Heimdal, N.D.

Repost from the Grand Forks Herald
[Editor:  More photos at the Bismarck Tribune.  – RS]

Fiery train derailment prompts evacuation of Heimdal, N.D.

By Herald Staff Report, May 6, 2015 8:52 a.m.
Train derailment and tanker fire by Heimdal. Pic courtesy of Jennifer Willis.

HEIMDAL, N.D. — The small North Dakota community of Heimdal and surrounding farmsteads were evacuated after an oil tanker train derailed Wednesday morning.

The BNSF Railway oil tanker train derailed about 7:30 a.m. about a mile and half east of Heimdal. Heimdal is about 80 miles southeast of Minot, said Wells County Emergency Manager Tammy Roehrich.

Cecily Fong, public information officer for the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services, reported there were 10 tanker cars on fire, though Roehrich reported six cars on fire.

BNSF spokesman Michael Trevino could not confirm the number of cars burning.

Fong and Trevino said the engine and cars not on fire have been decoupled and moved to safety.

No injuries or fatalities were reported, Fong said.

Roehrich said she couldn’t get close enough to the train to see whether it was exploding or just burning. “It looks a lot like Casselton,” she said, referring to the fiery train wreck of oil tankers near Casselton in December 2013.

Trevino said 107 tank cars were carrying crude, with two buffer cars loaded with sand between the crude cars and locomotives.

Trevino said he did not know the origin or destination of the train, which was using a two-person crew.

Wells County 911 Director and Deputy Sheriff Janelle Pepple said the the sky was black with smoke near the derailment site.

Everett Johnson, whose farm is 1.5 miles east of Heimdal, said he drove to within half a mile of the site earlier Wednesday and saw heavy black smoke pouring from the wreck. Although his home is close to the derailment, a hill blocks his view of the site.

“The wind’s blowing from the southwest to the northeast, so it’s not affecting the town of Heimdal,” he said. “It’s drizzling and raining, so that’s a good thing.”

The cars that derailed were toward the rear end of the train, he said. The decoupled section was pulled to the east.

“It’s kind of a slough area,” Johnson said.

Fong said about 40 people were evacuated from Heimdal.

The North Dakota Department of Health is monitoring air quality near the town of Heimdal.

A statement from the Health Department said the primary concern at this time is particulate matter contained in the smoke generated from the fire. The smoke plume is not dispersing well because of current weather conditions. Much of the smoke is remaining close to the ground, where it has greater potential to exacerbate breathing problems.

The 2010 Census reported 27 people living in Heimdal and 21 residents in Hamburg, about 19 miles to the east. Both are in northeastern Wells County.

A statement from BNSF Railway said the tank cars involved in the incident are the unjacketed CPC-1232 models, which are targeted for phase-out by 2020 under new federal safety rules announced last Friday.

Trevino said “unjacketed” means the cars can be retrofitted with ceramic thermal wrapping to conform with the new regulations.

A statement from Sarah Feinberg, acting Federal Railroad Administrator, said the agency has deployed a 10-person investigation team to the site.

“Today’s incident is yet another reminder of why we issued a significant, comprehensive rule aimed at improving the safe transport of high hazard flammable liquids. The FRA will continue to look at all options available to us to improve safety and mitigate risks,” Feinberg said in the statement.

Trevino could not say definitively that the new rules would have prevented a fire.

“The new rules would have a safer tank than the ones involved in this incident. So the new rules are moving toward a safer set of circumstances,” he said in an interview.

Ron Reimche, a school bus driver for the Harvey School District, said he crossed the same train tracks a few miles away from the scene shortly before the crash was reported. He was on his way to Esmond to pick up his first student of the day.

“I meet the trains every so often at that crossing,” said Reimche, adding that he makes sure to stop well back from the train tracks on his route. “In my opinion, they ought to hurry and get that pipeline in.”

Trevino said a cause for the derailment has not been determined. Responders are still attempting to contain oil at scene.

BNSF has dispatched its environmental response team and local operations team to the site.

Emergency crews from several fire departments in the region and hazardous materials teams from Devils Lake and Grand Forks responded to the derailment.

In addition to HAZMAT teams from Devils Lake and Grand Forks, the state Highway Patrol and firefighters from Harvey, Fessenden, Hamburg and Devils Lake were dispatched.

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said the FRA has deployed 10 people to the scene to investigate what caused the accident.

This is a developing story. Please check back for details. Reuters contributed information to this story.