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BNSF reopens track at ND site of oil train derailment, fire; spilled oil being cleaned up

BISMARCK, N.D. – BNSF Railway resumed shipments Friday along a track in North Dakota two days after an oil train derailed and caught fire, and cleanup continued on an undetermined amount of crude that spilled into nearby wetlands.

The mainline through the small town of Heimdal reopened after six derailed tank cars were removed and a section of track that was damaged during the accident was repaired and inspected, BNSF Vice-President Mike Trevino said.

The 109-car train was hauling crude from the Bakken oil patch in western North Dakota when the cars filled with about 180,000 gallons of oil went off the tracks and caught fire about 7:30 a.m. Wednesday.

No one was hurt but residents of Heimdal were forced from their homes for about a day.

The section of track where the derailment occurred was last inspected by BNSF on May 4, and by federal officials on Feb. 2, said Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Kevin Thompson. Neither inspection noted any defects or violations of federal regulations, Thompson said.

Trevino said the railway was “absolutely confident” the track was safe to put back into service.

The state Health Department says the railroad was making progress on cleaning up the oil that didn’t burn in the Wednesday wreck.

The railroad estimates that about 34,000 gallons of oil burned in the fire, and another 60,000 gallons spilled from the tankers, state Health Department Environmental Health Chief Dave Glatt said Friday.

It was not known how much of the oil that spilled ended up on the ground or in a nearby slough that connects with the James Rivers about 15 miles downstream, Glatt said. The railroad contained the spill in the slough and was removing the oil.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said oil entered wetlands and drainage ditches near the derailment site.

“We’re not seeing the James River or downstream interests being adversely impacted from this spill,” Glatt said.

The slough is not used for drinking water and is home to only small aquatic life such as frogs. There were no immediate signs of harm to wild birds, Glatt said.

Glatt added that it might take a week or two to get an answer on whether any groundwater was contaminated. Heimdal residents receive water from a pipeline that was not affected by the derailment.

Railroad crews also were removing contaminated dirt.

The cause remained under investigation, said Keith Holloway with the National Transportation Safety Board. Pieces of a broken wheel from one of the derailed cars were recovered from the scene Thursday.

After a defective tank car wheel emerged as the possible cause of a fiery oil train derailment in March in Illinois, federal railroad regulators issued an advisory last month for railroads to take extra precautions to prevent a repeat of that scenario.

The Department of Transportation recommended that only the most skilled personnel conduct pre-departure inspections of the cars. It also advised railroads to lower their threshold for taking action on tank cars that show early indications of problems.

Trevino could not immediately say if those recommendations were being followed. But he said that on April 1, BNSF had tightened its oversight of tank cars and reduced its tolerance for when potential wheel defects would lead the company to pull a car out of service.

“We said, let’s expand when we would stop the train and take the car out,” he said.

The railroad still was evaluating the April advisory to determine who would qualify to conduct the pre-departure inspections. It was not immediately clear if those inspections were the responsibility of the railroad or the company shipping the fuel, in this case the Hess Corporation.

The derailment follows a string of fiery oil train wrecks across the country in the past few years that heightened concerns over whether first responders can quickly access details on the trains’ cargoes.

Local authorities who responded in Heimdal said they received a shipping manifest from the train’s engineers on the crude that was being transported within 15 minutes of arriving on the scene.

Officials from the Federal Railroad Administration and NTSB investigators will be at the scene for several more days, U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said Friday.