While the crash of a train carrying crude oil in North Dakota led to fireballs rocketing into the air, clouds of thick black smoke for 15 miles, and the evacuation of nearby residents, officials are saying the incident could have been much worse.
The residents of Casselton, North Dakota who evacuated have been cleared to re-enter their homes following the crash, which happened Monday when a 106-car train carrying crude collided with a derailed soybean freighter. Officials say residents were not exposed to any of the deadly toxins that explosive crude might give off, though one woman in the town said the particulates in the air alone were enough to make you “want to barf your guts out.”
In a press conference on Tuesday, Casselton officials acknowledged that even carbon monoxide poisoning would not be the worst potential outcome from such a serious crash.
“We could have had this go so many different ways,” said Paul Laney, sheriff of Cass County, which includes Casselton and is home to the highest rate of train derailments in the state of North Dakota. “If that thing happened a half mile into town, we’d be looking at a very, very different discussion here today.”
There’s no need to imagine the scenario of a massive crude accident closer to a residential area. Back in July of 2013, a tanker carrying North Dakota crude derailed in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic. It destroyed about half of the downtown area and left 47 dead.
North Dakota trains now carry more oil across the country than the controversial Keystone XL pipeline would. Ninety percent of the fossil fuel-rich state’s oil is carried by freight, shipped off to refineries all around the U.S. and Canada. One of those freighters turned up in a massive derailment in Alabama in November of 2013, when a 90-car train derailed and caught fire, sending flames 300 feet up into the air.
Still, rail transport of crude is proliferating in North America. A new proposal for a rail terminal in California may soon bring North Dakota crude to that state, too. And the executive of a major oil company has even deemed rail a good alternative to pipeline transport. The surge in rail transport, he added, is calling into question the importance of the Keystone XL pipeline.