MINNEAPOLIS -- Public safety authorities in Minnesota are gearing up for the enhanced risk of more oil tanker car fires because of the acceleration of crude oil shipments running through the state.
"With the uptick of oil shipments out of North Dakota and knowing some of it's coming this way, we've been out there trying to make sure that our emergency management groups know they can call us," Kevin Reed, Minnesota's Branch Director of Homeland Security and Operations, told KARE.
A spectacular series of explosions forced the partial evacuation of the town of Casselton, N.D. on Monday after several cars from an eastbound grain train derailed and crossed into the path of an oncoming westbound oil train on a parallel track.
The Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad and the National Transportation Safety Bureau were still seeking a cause of the crash, which spread to 19 oil cars and sent fire billowing high into the sky. Fortunately it did not cause any injuries.
The BNSF said that at least eight oil trains are in play on any given day, but couldn't say Tuesday how many of those cross through Minnesota. The Canadian Pacific Railroad acknowledged that it sends Canadian oil through the state, but didn't not have specific numbers.
But it's clear that the amount of crude oil moving through Minnesota is on the upswing.
The American Association of Railroads issued a report this week showing that, nationally, the number of crude oil carloads has soared from 29,000 in 2010 to 400,000 this year. That acceleration has corresponded to the oil boom in the Bakken Field in western North Dakota.
Reed said the Minnesota Department of Public Safety brought in a team from Texas A & M University earlier this year to do specialized training in oil car fire response, which covered specifics of how Canadian shale oil differs from North Dakota crude when it burns.
"We want to be able to respond to any oil, flammable or non-flammable, and make sure that local fire department understands, by looking at the containers, by looking at manifests, to give us the information on how to support them."
Reed said that specialized information is essential for first responders that will have to deal with these fires alone until the state's regional hazardous materials units and railroad teams arrive at the scene.
He said most local fire departments have a general idea of what is being shipped on a certain rail line on an average day, but won't know exactly what they're facing until they hear from the railroad and emergency management personnel.
In the meantime, the railroad industry group has also called on the Federal Railroad Administration to adopt tougher design standards for oil tanker cars, so that they are less likely to burst open and leak or burn in the event of a collision or derailment.
According to Holly Arthur, of the Association of American Railroads, the industry has already voluntarily adopted a 50 mph speed limit for trains hauling crude oil and other hazardous substances.