Oil train derailment prompts officials to issue safety warning

Following a massive explosion caused by an oil train derailment last week near Casselton, N.D., the U.S. Department of Transportation has issued a safety alert.           

The U.S. DOT issued the warning early Thursday afternoon, just three days after the derailment of the mile-long train. 

The derailment sent a fireball and plumes of black smoke skyward about a mile from the small town of Casselton. The fire had been so intense as darkness fell that investigators couldn’t get close enough to count the number of burning cars. No one was hurt, but worries about toxic fumes prompted the evacuation of hundreds of residents.           

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The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said it issued the alert to warn the public, emergency responders and shippers about the potential high volatility of crude being shipped from the Bakken oil shale patch in Montana and North Dakota.           

Government officials said the crude oil being shipped by rail from the Northern Plains across the U.S. and Canada may be more flammable than traditional forms of oil.           

The pipeline agency, a part of the DOT, said it is reinforcing the requirement that hazardous materials be properly tested, characterized, classified and where necessary, degasified.           

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North Dakota is the No. 2 oil-producing state in the U.S., trailing only Texas. The state’s top oil regulator said earlier this month that he expected as much has 90 percent of North Dakota’s oil to be carried by train in 2014, up from 60 percent.           

The number of crude oil carloads hauled by U.S. railroads surged from 10,840 in 2009 to a projected 400,000 this year. Despite the increase, the rate of accidents has stayed relatively steady. Railroads say 99.997 percent of hazardous materials shipments reach destinations safely.

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