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Published January 04 2014

Forum editorial: ‘What-if’ must be considered

Some flaks for the railroad and oil industries suggest pundits, politicians and editorialists should not dwell on the “what-ifs” of oil train accidents like the derailment, collision and fiery explosion of an oil train and a grain train last week near Casselton, N.D. An average of 99.9 percent of freight reaches its destination without incident, a BNSF Railway spokesperson said a few weeks ago. Therefore, the implied message goes, focus on the possibility of major wrecks is not justified by the statistics.

That’s baloney.

It’s a new oil-on-the-rails era. Therefore, that seemingly miniscule one-tenth of one percent that jumps the track is a new concern. The nature of freight has changed. Much more of it is volatile North Dakota Bakken crude oil. If an oil train derails, it’s almost a sure thing the oil will flash to fire and tank cars will explode like bombs. The pictures from the Casselton wreck were not movie special effects.

Three major rail lines converge at Fargo-Moorhead and Dilworth. Every week they carry more 100-car oil trains than ever before. More are coming as the current 70 percent of crude moving out of the Bakken by rail rises to 90 percent. It’s a new oil train world for the F-M area.

In that reality, the “what-if” factor must inform emergency management protocols and disaster preparedness agencies. Intensive attention to prevention measures and after-the-fact disaster response are at the heart of training for worst-case scenarios. The worst-case scenario is the “what-if.”

Emergency personnel are trained well. The rural Casselton situation demonstrated they can do excellent work in concert with law enforcement and the railroad. But had the oil train derailed and burned in nearby Casselton or at midday in the densely developed rail corridor along Fargo’s Main Avenue, emergency personnel would have had to confront a disaster of enormous consequences. No matter how good the training or how impressive the resources brought to bear, nothing can contain burning flowing oil and exploding tank cars.

In response to several train accidents involving Bakken crude oil, federal regulators are moving to toughen tank car standards. A safety alert regarding flammable Bakken oil was issued last week by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Railroads are reviewing safety procedures and re-examining roadbeds that carry many more long and heavier trains. The National Transportation Safety Board’s initial findings suggest a switch or broken axel might have contributed to the Casselton wreck. It’s all good and necessary work.

It’s also another symptom of how North Dakota’s oil boom has raced ahead of government and private sector capacities. Whether it’s housing, law enforcement, medical care, road building, and now, new stresses on the rails, the story is the same. But this time, the Casselton wreck is troubling confirmation of what the real cost of the boom could be.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.