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Preparing for ‘what if’ in F-M area; Some Fargo-area officials say more training needed on train derailments

This graphic describes hypothetical evacuation zones in the Fargo Moorhead area in the event of train derailments in different areas.

FARGO — In early November, Fargo city officials faced a sobering but hypothetical emergency response drill: What would happen if an oil train derailed in the heart of Fargo?

Following the fiery train derailment and explosion near Casselton on Monday, many in the metro area are wondering what would transpire if the “what if” scenario became reality.

It’s something local emergency officials say the metro area is well-prepared for, but some city leaders say there needs to be more training for derailments in the wake of the wreck.

In the Fargo drill, an eastbound train carrying Bakken crude oil came off the tracks near University Drive and Main Avenue, setting fire to some tankers while others spilled their contents into the underpass below the tracks. Thousands of people would need to be evacuated as firefighters worked to keep flames from spreading downtown and the metro area’s hazardous materials team kept the oil from flooding the city’s sewers.

West Fargo Mayor Rich Mattern said he believes the cities, at least at the mayoral and council level, focus emergency response conversations on other kinds of disasters, such as tornadoes or floods.

“I don’t know that we’ve ever really sat down, in all my years, to say, ‘What if this happens, in case of a derail?’” Mattern said, referring to himself and the other mayors. “With the increased train traffic going through town, maybe it is time to sit down and have that conversation on the higher level.”

More training ahead

The Fargo derailment drill was one of four annual emergency drills thrown at city department heads last year by Leon Schlafmann, the city’s emergency services coordinator.

In the drill, Schlafmann had an oil train derail at University Drive and Main Avenue, causing oil to pool in the underpass below the tracks. Three of the train cars exploded, spreading fire to nearby buildings.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Emergency Response Guidebook, used by first responders from Casselton to Dilworth, Minn., calls for a half-mile evacuation zone if a train hauling oil spills and burns. Fargo geographic information system data shows 4,600 residents within a half-mile of the intersection of University and Main.

“I was pretty kind to them,” Schlafmann said of the drill. “I didn’t involve any hospitals, but I threw enough at them to make them think.”

The point of the November drill, which just involved high-level city staff, was to hammer home what those officials would need to do during an oil derailment, Schlafmann said.

With an oil train burning and possibly set to explode, one of the first priorities is getting people out of harm’s way. It would be all hands on deck, with ambulances and city buses potentially used for evacuation, and the city could open up facilities like the Fargodome or Civic Center for evacuees.

An evacuation at Main and University would be compounded by vulnerable individuals within the half-mile radius, like Bethany retirement home, which Schlafmann said he intentionally included in the November drill.

If a derailment happened at Main and Broadway, a half-mile evacuation zone would displace 4,100 people, according to Fargo GIS data. In Moorhead, Minn., a derailment at Main and Eighth Street would call for 4,444 evacuees, and if one occurred at the 21st Street South underpass by Moorhead High School, there would be 2,868 evacuees, not including students, City Manager Michael Redlinger said.

Schlafmann said the November drill went “smooth” but that there are always “little things” that get tweaked with each drill, such as how to best navigate resources and crews through the city if main corridors are closed off.

In the past, Schlafmann said he has tried to run a train accident drill at least once a year. The city had a total of three train-related drills last year, one involving BNSF Railway officials.

“We have talked about it, especially after what happened in Quebec,” Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said, referring to a train wreck in July that killed 47 people. “We have not been ignoring it.”

Following the Casselton crash, though, Schlafmann said safety training sessions for derailments will become more frequent. He’s already planning a more in-depth derail drill for later this year.

“It’ll definitely be on our radar now for the long haul, and we’ll be training a little bit more than we probably normally would,” he said.

Hazmat team an ‘asset’

The Fargo-Moorhead hazmat team has 70 specially trained firefighters who can be deployed anywhere in the metro area.

“We’re all going to be helping one another if there was an event in the urban core. That would be significant,” Redlinger said.

Everyone on the team receives about 110 hours of initial training, and then 40 to 60 hours more each year, said Chad Stangeland, an assistant fire chief in Moorhead who also coordinates the hazmat team.

The hazmat technicians become experts at patching ruptured containers and containing hazardous spills, Stangeland said.

The Fargo side of the hazmat team provides regional coverage for southeastern North Dakota, and Moorhead provides support for west-central Minnesota.

All told, the two teams, funded by state and federal dollars because of their regional capacities, have between $2.5 million and $3 million worth of equipment.

“That’s a tremendous asset,” Stangeland said.

The way the tracks are laid out through Fargo also provides some advantages, Schlafmann said.

“We’ve got a nice straight track going through town. No major switching points within the city,” he said.

But an accident can happen anywhere at any time, which is why they train, Schlafmann said.

Push for safer oil cars

National Transportation Safety Board officials have said the tankers involved in the Casselton crash were older-model DOT-111s, which have shown a greater tendency to rupture.

Also, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued a safety alert Thursday, saying the light Bakken oil may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude, based on investigations from accidents in Casselton, Alabama and Quebec.

Walaker called the more flammable sweet crude “a whole different ballgame,” and said the only solutions he sees are to make the oil tank cars safer or build a pipeline.

Former Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland, who retired at the end of last year, said the combination of unsafe train cars carrying a highly volatile product is unsettling to him.

Voxland said two things have to happen in the wake of Casselton. First, he said the metro-area mayors have to push fire and police to do more derailment training. Second, federal legislators need to be involved.

“I think we’re going to have to start insisting that Bakken crude be shipped through metropolitan areas with a much better tanker than what is currently on the rail,” Voxland said.

Erik Burgess
Erik Burgess covers city and county government for The Forum. He started as the paper's night reporter in 2012, after graduating from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. He was born and raised in Grand Forks, N.D., and also spent time interning at the Grand Forks Herald.  Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to
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