Climate

Oil Train Derails, Catches Fire, And Causes Evacuation Of North Dakota Town

CREDIT: Shutterstock

A town in North Dakota was evacuated Wednesday after an oil train derailed and caught fire.

The BNSF Railway train went off the tracks Wednesday morning about two miles from the town of Heimdal, North Dakota. The derailment forced approximately 35 people to leave the town, but officials say there’s been no injuries. Ten out of the 109 cars on the train caught fire, but officials did not yet know as of Wednesday afternoon if the cars had exploded or were simply burning. Fire crews had been called in to try to contain the blaze.

It’s was also unclear on Wednesday whether oil had been spilled as a result the derailment. Tammy Roehrich, emergency manager for Wells County, where Heimdal is located, said the scene looked similar to a 2013 derailment in Casselton, North Dakota.


Oil train derailments have been occurring more and more frequently across North America, as oil shipments via rail have increased. Among the most infamous is the 2013 derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people and destroyed the town’s center.

There have been multiple oil train accidents since the Quebec disaster, however: In March, an oil train derailed and caught fire in Illinois, an incident that occurred about a month after a train derailed and spilled oil in Ontario, Canada. This February, an oil train derailed and exploded in West Virginia, and last April, a train derailed and spilled oil into Virginia’s James River.

In the U.S., North Dakota is one of the states in the center of this increased oil train traffic, due to its location above the Bakken shale formation. North Dakota’s oil production began growing in the mid-2000s and skyrocketed in 2010, and trains — along with pipelines — have been used to move this oil around the country. But studies have confirmed that oil from the Bakken region is more volatile than other types of crude, making shipments from North Dakota and other Bakken states risky.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation released new standards for oil trains aimed at decreasing the number of derailments, rules that have been long-awaited in the U.S. but which were criticized by environmental groups and some members of Congress for not being strict enough. Under the new standards, oil trains will require updated braking systems and will follow a new maximum speed of 50 miles per hour. The rules also call for the phase-out of old DOT-111 cars by 2018, cars that are some of the most prone to puncture.

Some environmental groups weren’t happy with the phase-out, however, and said the DOT should have banned the cars outright.

“The Department of Transportation got it wrong with its so-called safety regulations for oil tank cars.” Lena Moffitt, Director of Sierra Club’s Dirty Fuels Campaign, said in a statement. “Rather than accept these wholly inadequate rules, which jeopardize health and safety of communities along rail lines, the administration should place a moratorium on bomb trains outright.”