WILLISTON, N.D. – The Bakken crude involved in the deadly train derailment and explosion in Quebec represents only a fraction of the oil shipped by rail from North Dakota each day.
About 675,000 barrels of Bakken crude leaves North Dakota rail facilities daily, according to the most recent figures from Justin Kringstad, director of the North Dakota Pipeline Authority.
That averages to about 1,000 railcars per day, Kringstad said, and about 15 times the amount of oil shipped by rail from North Dakota three years earlier.
At least 13 people died and 37 were still missing Monday after a train carrying crude derailed in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, near the Maine border Saturday.
The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway confirmed that the oil cars that exploded came from North Dakota.
Kringstad said it would be difficult to determine where in North Dakota the train was loaded because that information is typically not made public.
Seventy-five percent of oil produced in North Dakota leaves by rail, in part due to a lack of pipelines and also because producers have found access to premium prices by shipping to refineries not served by North Dakota-linked pipelines.
Market prices may direct more North Dakota oil transportation to pipeline, industry officials have said.
“The market has been driving the transportation buildout, whether that was pipeline buildout or rail buildout,” Kringstad said.
The Federal Rail Administration is taking several steps to address increases in rail traffic in the Bakken oil region, said spokesman Kevin Thompson.
Under the agency’s Bakken Rail Accident Mitigation Project, federal officials are conducting more hazardous material safety inspections in the region and facilitating safety training seminars with shippers, consignees, contractors and subcontractors, Thompson said.
The administration also is working with stakeholders to improve highway-rail crossing safety and prevent trespassing, he said.
The Quebec derailment is what members of the Sierra Club in North Dakota have been worried about, said Wayde Schafer of Bismarck, conservation organizer for the Dacotah chapter.
“I think North Dakota is very vulnerable,” Schafer said.
One step to protecting the state could be to slow down oil development until more infrastructure is in place, Schafer said.
“We’re running into this quite a bit where the infrastructure isn’t keeping up with production,” Schafer said.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said in a statement through his spokesman Monday “the incident underscores the need for vital pipeline infrastructure, like the Keystone XL, to move more product to market in both the U.S. and Canada.”
Supporters of pipeline expansion in North Dakota often call it the safest method of transporting oil.
The Association of American Railroads and BNSF Railway issued statements Monday that said railroads are the safest way to transport hazardous materials.
More than 99.99 percent of rail hazmat shipments in rail hazmat shipments in North America reach their destinations without a release caused by a train accident, the Association of American Railroads said.
BNSF Railway, which operates the most rail miles in North Dakota, said rail accidents have been reduced 91 percent since 1980.
“While we don’t yet know the specifics, the results of the investigation will help determine what can be done to ensure it does not happen again,” BNSF Railway said in a statement.
Alan Dybing, an associate research fellow at the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute, said that while North Dakota rail transportation of oil has grown substantially, the state has not had a major hazardous materials incident in the past 10 years.
Dybing points to statistics from the Federal Railroad Administration that show that the number of train derailments and overall rail accidents in North Dakota have not changed significantly in recent years.
If a rail tragedy occurred in North Dakota, it would be up to local emergency responders to react, said Cecily Fong, spokeswoman for the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services.
If it’s beyond their capability, local responders would call on neighboring agencies they have agreements with and then possibly receive state-level assistance, Fong said.
Fargo Fire Department Battalion Chief Chris Rasmussen oversees the department’s hazmat unit. In addition to the hazmat unit for southeast North Dakota that is based in Fargo, about 50 emergency responders participate on hazmat team based in Moorhead, Minn., Rasmussen said.
“We’re very capable of handling a very large incident,” Rasmussen said.
In recent years, the North Dakota unit has stockpiled more absorbent booms and other equipment to protect waterways in the event of an oil spill, he said.
Dave Rogness, Cass County emergency services coordinator, said trains carrying hazardous material have traveled through Fargo and the county for years, and responders train to be ready for an incident.
“It’s something we’ve been aware of for a long time and we’re concerned about it and we have training and resources to deal with it,” Rogness said.
Grand Forks Fire Chief Peter O’Neill says the city is always prepared to respond to an emergency.
“There’s bad stuff that comes through (Grand Forks) every day of the week,” he said. “We’re prepared as best as we can be for that happening.”
Aside from utilizing disaster training, the Grand Forks Fire Department also serves as the hazardous materials team for the region.
According to O’Neill, the dangerous loads that travel through the city are simply unavoidable.
“It’s a way of life,” he said.
Reporter Will Beaton contributed to this report.