A BNSF train carrying crude oil in North Dakota collided with another train Monday afternoon, setting off a series of explosions that left at least 10 cars ablaze, the latest in a string of incidents that have raised alarms over growing oil-by-rail traffic.
Residents heard five powerful explosions a mile outside of the small town of Casselton after a westbound train carrying soybeans derailed, and an eastbound 104-car train hauling crude oil ran into it around 2:10 p.m. CST (3:10 p.m. EDT), local officials told Reuters. There were no injuries, but hundreds of residents were evacuated as a precaution, the Associated Press reported.
Later Monday evening, authorities urged everyone in town and the surrounding five miles to leave. The Cass County Sheriff's Office said the National Weather Service is forecasting a shift in the weather that would push the plume of smoke down, increasing the risk of health hazards. Residents within 10 miles were asked to remain indoors to avoid contact with the smoke.
Local officials said they heard a series of blasts following the collision, including one at 3:40 p.m. Windows shook at the city auditor's office.
"Approximately 10 cars are fully engulfed resulting in heavy smoke in the area," the sheriff said in a statement at 4:36 p.m., adding that local fire and hazardous material teams were battling the blaze. The sheriff said it was not yet clear how the collision had occurred.
The train cars were still burning four hours later as darkness fell, and authorities said they would be allowed to burn out.
Sheriff's Sgt. Tara Morris told the AP the evacuation of a section of the town Casselton was a precaution in case of a wind shift. A thick smoke plume from the burning cars was largely staying to the southeast of town. Casselton has about 2,400 residents and is about 25 miles west of Fargo.
The tracks that the train was on Monday pass through the middle of Casselton, and Morris said it was "a blessing it didn't happen within the city."
The collision destroyed both engines on the oil train. Both trains were operated by BNSF Railway Co, which is owned by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK).
The incident is likely to stoke concerns about the safety of shipping increasing volumes of crude oil by rail, a trend that emerged from North Dakota's Bakken fields oil boom. More than two-thirds of the state's oil production is currently shipped by rail.
North Dakota is home to a raging shale oil boom that produced nearly 950,000 barrels of oil a day in October. It is also a major grain producer and long accustomed to a high volume of rail traffic.
But shipments of oil have surged lately, most of it the light, sweet Bakken variety that experts say is particularly flammable.
Trains carried nearly 700,000 barrels a day of North Dakota oil to market in October, a 67 percent jump from a year earlier, according to the state Pipeline Authority.
BNSF, based in Fort Worth, Texas, didn’t provide an estimate for when the tracks will reopen, Bloomberg reported.
Oil produced in North Dakota’s Bakken formation for delivery at Clearbrook, Minnesota, was unchanged at a discount of $8.25 a barrel versus U.S. benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude yesterday, data compiled by Bloomberg show.
A video posted on YouTube by Dan Gunderson shows the explosion following the derailment: