Oil Trains Up Risks In Rural North Dakota

Inside Dakota Ag

The oil train derailment and explosion outside of Casselton, N.D., was the first in state, but it probably won't be the last.

Published on: December 31, 2013

In November, I was stopped at a railroad crossing in Leeds, N.D., as a mile-long oil train roared by. I wondered then when a North Dakota would have an oil train disaster like the one in Quebec. It didn’t take long. An oil train collided with a derailed grain train outside of Casselton, N.D. on Dec. 30 and several of the oil tankers exploded. The oil is still burning a day after the collision and the town of Casselton is evacuated.

Fortunately, the accident occurred about ½ mile outside of town and the wind was blowing away from town. It didn’t occur near a farmstead, either. No one was killed. If the derailment had happened in town, more than 100 people would have died, according to officials. If the explosion had occurred in Jamestown, Bismack, Valley City, Minot, Grand Forks, Fargo or any of the larger towns on the rail lines, the losses would have been much higher.

Oil tankers in a mile long unit train race past the BTR elevator in Leeds, N.D.
Oil tankers in a mile long unit train race past the BTR elevator in Leeds, N.D.

I’m not ready to condemn the oil industry or the railroad. We move of a lot of flammable material by rail. Ag generates its share of dangerous cargo, too – ethanol and anhydrous ammonia, to name two. And there have been more than a few grain dust explosions in country elevators.

Life, even in North Dakota and South Dakota, is full of risks. But shipping oil from the Bakken by rail heightens the risk that Dakotans face. The sheer number of trains increases the odds that we’ll have more accidents.

There’s a lot the state will learn from the Casselton accident. Communities on the railroad lines ought to learn, too. They might want to think what they will do if a train derails near them someday, because the chance that it will happen has never been higher.