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Katherine Lymn and Bryan Horwath, Forum News Service, Published December 31 2013

Casselton crash reroutes trains; 70 percent of ND oil production transported by rail

FRYBURG, N.D. — There was no movement Tuesday afternoon as trains sat idle at the Great Northern Midstream rail facility outside Fryburg, the oil loading site for the eastbound train in Monday’s fiery crash.

As a guard sat stationed in an SUV at the Billings County facility’s gate, a Great Northern representative said trains were not moving from the facility, though one oil tanker appeared to drop off a load.

Oil-by-rail transport lingered in the minds of North Dakotans after the train destined for Missouri collided with derailed cars from another train, causing an explosion near Casselton just after 2 p.m. Monday.

More than 10 of those oil cars eventually caught fire and exploded, leading to a massive explosion and plume of smoke, followed by a push for evacuation.

Though the rural train terminal that loads oil into tankers to be hauled away from western North Dakota was quiet Tuesday, BNSF Railway spokeswoman Amy McBeth stated in an email that trains continued to operate in North Dakota amid the aftermath of the Casselton collision.

“We reroute ... when there is an incident,” McBeth stated. “It depends on origin and destination what route trains will take. Trains are operating in North Dakota on other routes.”

BNSF spokesman Steve Forsberg said rail logistics in North Dakota and along the company’s surrounding network have been affected because of the Casselton disaster, but added that railroad customers will be notified first of rerouting plans.

“All traffic has been affected,” Forsberg said.

Southwest Grain General Manager Delane Thom said he hasn’t heard from BNSF, but that traffic has likely been suspended. As of about noon Tuesday, he hadn’t seen a train all day.

His operations will continue as normal -- until the grain elevators fill up, that is.

Then, he said, “we’ll just have to stop dumping until we see rail traffic start again.”

Cause for concern

About 70 percent of North Dakota’s oil production is transported by rail, a figure that top regulator Lynn Helms predicts could hit 90 percent in 2014.

In October, North Dakota transported more than 700,000 barrels of oil per day by rail, said Justin Kringstad, director of the North Dakota Pipeline Authority, said in his most recent monthly update.

That averages to about 10 unit trains, each with about 100 cars, loaded with crude oil leaving the state per day, Kringstad said.

Helms, director of the Department of Mineral Resources, said in a statement Tuesday that he expects companies to use alternative routes for transportation by rail and he doesn’t expect the derailment will have any short-term impacts on oil production.

North Dakota has 22 rail-loading facilities and at least three more are under construction, Kringstad said.

After the dramatic shots of the explosion caused by the collision gained national attention Monday, many were left wondering what would happen if the same happened anywhere else on the BNSF Railway line bisecting North Dakota.

Dickinson Fire Department Chief Robert Sivak said the most important task when responding to such an event is setting up a perimeter.

Responders choose whether to shelter people in place or get them out of the area depending on weather, a smoke plume and the products on the train.

“Usually something like this is just so dramatic, so intense in its heat and all of that, that the best thing you can do is determine where that line is,” Sivak said.

For Casselton, particulates in the smoke and a shift in wind patterns caused worry since the explosions.

Emergency managers coordinate who will respond based on the severity of an event - starting with “mutual aid” partnerships with nearby fire departments, and escalating to state aid if needed.

Dunn County Emergency Manager Denise Brew said she expects this incident to fuel the fire over the oil transport debate and greater push toward pipelines.

“I think they are gonna say, ‘Start digging them in,’” she said.

Reporter Amy Dalrymple contributed to this report.