Casselton fire chief testifies in D.C., shares lessons from fiery derailment
WASHINGTON — Casselton Fire Chief Tim McLean said his firefighters were prepared for the worst when an oil train ignited after striking a derailed grain train on Dec. 30.
But he thought they’d be coping with anhydrous ammonia or another dangerous chemical — he never expected to battle Bakken crude.
“We had no idea it was this volatile,” the fire chief said in an interview.
Nonetheless, McLean told a U.S. Senate subcommittee Tuesday that “nearly everything went right” as the Casselton fire department and other local first responders worked to get the fiery derailment under control and keep the public safe.
In Casselton, with a fire department powered by 28 volunteers running on an $89,000 annual budget, and in rural towns across the country, McLean said federal grants like their grant from the Department of Homeland Security are critical to ensure local first responders are properly trained to handle a disaster.
“All of the rural volunteer fire departments depend so much on grants,” McLean told U.S. Sen. Mark Begich as his subcommittee on Emergency Management, Intergovernmental Relations and the District of Columbia discussed training first responders.
U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., brought McLean before the committee to testify about the importance of funding training for first responders. In an interview, she called it one of “three different pieces of the puzzle” she’s focusing on to address new concerns of crude-by-rail safety, along with trying to improve track to avoid derailments and strengthen standards for the tank cars used to transport oil.
Heitkamp pressed a representative of the Federal Emergency Management Agency — which helps provide training to first responders — to hone in on the safety questions that have come with the growing use of rail to ship crude oil. By some estimates, crude-by-rail shipments have increased more than 400 percent in just the last few years.
Mike King, FEMA’s acting director of national education and training, told the subcommittee FEMA plans to increase its budget for hazardous materials training grants from $1 million to $3 million this year. Given the drastic surge in crude-by-rail traffic, Heitkamp said that funding increase “seems like it doesn’t quite meet the challenges.”
Though he thought their response to the Casselton derailment went as well as it could have, McLean said it “should put all of us on notice.”
“Because of the growing oil industry and the likelihood that oil will continue to be shipped via rail, we must continue to train and plan for these types of incidents,” he said.
Casselton Mayor Ed McConnell said the railroad has been “a lot more responsive” since the derailment, but he noted it will be a long time before tougher railcars and new pipelines go into service to reduce the risk of such incidents.
“So all we can do is hold their feet to the fire and make sure that they’re doing their inspections,” he said Tuesday during a seminar hosted by the North Dakota League of Cities in Bismarck.
Among the lessons learned that McConnell, City Auditor Sheila Klevgard and Cass County Emergency Manager Dave Rogness shared with those at the seminar was the importance of training. Cities also should identify their risks and resources, reach out to neighboring communities to discuss partnering when disaster strikes and have a local emergency plan, Rogness said.
Rogness said that while the Casselton response went “remarkably well” overall, an after-action review identified a handful of areas in which to improve, including the need to enhance cellphone and Internet capability in rural areas. The county also needs a better incident command vehicle and greater capability to handle media inquiries during major disasters, he said, noting the public information officer was “swamped” with calls within minutes of a video of the oil-fueled fireballs being posted on YouTube.
As a result of the derailment and the media scrutiny and regulatory attention that followed, trains with filled railcars are rolling through cities at about half the speed they were before the incident, Rogness said.
“And now we’re starting to get complaints about the crossings being tied up too long,” he said.
Site cleanup done
More than 400,000 gallons of Bakken crude spilled or burned up in the Casselton incident.
Last week, the North Dakota Department of Health gave BNSF the go-ahead to begin backfilling the derailment site where about 10,000 tons of contaminated soil was excavated from an area roughly the size of a football field, said Dave Glatt, chief of the department’s environmental health section.
“For all practical purposes, they’re done with the cleanup,” he said.
The state has directed BNSF to catch water runoff from the site using oil booms, and the company must monitor the groundwater twice a year for the next two years using several monitoring wells, Glatt said, adding he doesn’t anticipate any additional contamination.
“We think they got everything,” he said.
Glatt said officials originally predicted the cleanup would take until May or June, but BNSF worked quickly to be able to backfill the site in order to avoid spring rains and runoff.
“They didn’t want it to turn into a lake,” he said.