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Burning question: How to safely ship Bakken oil?

Casselton Mayor Ed McConnell is questioning safety of shipping oil by train after an oil train derailed just west of his town on Tuesday.

CASSELTON, N.D. — Casselton Mayor Ed McConnell was a quarter-mile away from the blaze that erupted after Monday’s train collision and could feel the heat through the windows of his vehicle.

He was surprised by the size of the fireball that burst from BNSF railcars carrying crude oil from western North Dakota. The train carrying oil struck a derailed car filled with soybeans just west of Casselton.

“I think that my eyes were opened up a little bit. Maybe this isn’t just regular old thick, black crude,” McConnell said. “This stuff, evidently, must burn easier than what we used to have in North Dakota.”

McConnell isn’t the only one with questions about the volatility of Bakken crude, with government agencies in the U.S. and Canada investigating how to improve the safety of transporting oil by rail.

“If that would have been in town, we would have easily lost 100 people,” McConnell said Wednesday.

Canadian officials also raised questions about the volatility of light, sweet Bakken crude after the July 6 derailment and explosion that killed 47 in Quebec. Analysis of oil from the tank cars is part of that investigation.

Several weeks after that derailment, the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration announced an effort to verify if crude oil is properly classified in North Dakota when it’s loaded into railcars.

The effort, known as the Bakken Blitz, involves unannounced spot inspections, data collection and sampling to investigate how shippers and carriers are classifying crude oil and what actions they’re taking to understand the characteristics of the oil.

“Rail safety is a national priority, and we have been aggressively taking action on multiple fronts to mitigate risks and ensure the safe transportation of hazmat by rail,” PHMSA spokeswoman Jeannie Shiffer said in a statement.

The inspection effort is still ongoing, the agencies said.

The North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources has provided federal investigators with analysis of crude oil from samples taken around the state, said Director Lynn Helms.

“We’re happy to cooperate and assist all the folks that are doing investigations,” Helms said.

A Federal Railroad Administration official outlined the agency’s concerns about potential safety issues related to transporting crude oil by rail in a July 29 letter to the American Petroleum Institute.

In the letter, Thomas Herrmann, acting director of the FRA’s Office of Safety Assurance and Compliance, writes that if oil is improperly classified, it might be shipped in a lesser standard tank car.

Herrmann also raises concerns about cases of severe corrosion in tank cars carrying crude oil. He writes that a possible cause of the corrosion is contamination of the crude oil by materials used in hydraulic fracturing.

Officials in Canada also are studying whether hydrochloric acid, commonly used in hydraulic fracturing, might cause corrosion of tank cars, according to Helms.

Helms, a chemical engineer, said hydrochloric acid is a “water-loving chemical” and he’d be surprised if there were any corrosive levels of it in the crude oil.

In addition, Canadian officials are studying whether hydrogen sulfide in oil causes corrosion of tank cars, Helms said. It’s rare for Bakken crude to contain hydrogen sulfide, according to Helms, but higher concentrations of the gas were a concern for Enbridge last May at its Berthold facility.

Meanwhile, PHMSA also continues to work on updating rail safety regulations, including those that address DOT 111 tank cars, the same type involved in the Casselton derailment.

The Association of American Railroads has urged PHMSA to retrofit or phase out DOT 111 cars that are not built to the latest industry safety standards.

“We believe it’s time for a thorough review of the U.S. tank car fleet that moves flammable liquids, particularly considering the recent increase in crude oil traffic,” said Edward Hamberger, the association’s president and CEO, in a November statement.

Preliminary information indicates that the DOT 111 cars involved in the Casselton derailment were older models, said NTSB member Robert Sumwalt.

North Dakota transports about 70 percent of its oil by rail and Helms has predicted it may increase to 90 percent this year. In October, that accounted for more than 700,000 barrels of oil per day, or an average of 10 trains loaded with oil leaving the state per day, according to the North Dakota Pipeline Authority.

The oil train in the Casselton derailment had 18 cars that derailed, Sumwalt said. The NTSB is still working to determine how many rail cars leaked oil, Sumwalt said Wednesday.

A pipeline leak discovered Sept. 29 in a wheat field near Tioga spilled 20,600 barrels of oil, which would be equivalent to about 30 rail cars if each carried an average 650-700 barrels of oil.

McConnell said he’s in favor of transporting more oil via pipeline because he thinks it carries less risk than rail traffic going through populated areas.

“I think oil should be on pipe. I just think it’s safer,” McConnell said. “Sure it might spill and do some environmental problems, but it isn’t going to kill a bunch of people.”

Reporter Helmut Schmidt contributed to this article.