CASSELTON, N.D. — A southeastern North Dakota town narrowly escaped tragedy when a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded nearby, the mayor said Tuesday, calling for changes in how the fuel is transported across the United States.
No one was hurt in Monday's derailment of the mile-long train that sent a fireball and plumes of black smoke skyward about a mile from the small town of Casselton.
Worries about the smoke plume prompted officials to ask Casselton's 2,400 residents to evacuate Monday evening, and most did. The recommendation was lifted Tuesday afternoon, but officials were urging residents south of the derailment to remain vigilant about changing conditions, Cass County Commissioner Ken Pawluk said.
The rail tracks run straight through the middle of Casselton, a town about 25 miles west of Fargo. Mayor Ed McConnell estimated that dozens of people could have been killed if the derailments had happened within the town. He said it is time to "have a conversation" with federal lawmakers about the dangers of transporting oil by rail.
"There have been numerous derailments in this area," he told the Associated Press. "It's almost gotten to the point that it looks like not if we're going to have an accident, it's when. We dodged a bullet by having it out of town, but this is too close for comfort."
Residents said the blasts lasted for hours after the derailment, shaking homes and businesses.
The train was operated by BNSF Railway. A spokeswoman said 18 tanker cars burned.
National Transportation Safety Board officials on the scene said the agency's investigation would examine the train recorder, the signal system, the condition of the train operators, train and tracks, as well as the response to the derailment.
North Dakota is the No. 2 oil-producing state in the United States, trailing only Texas. In December, the state's top oil regulator said that he expected as much as 90 percent of North Dakota's oil to be carried by train in 2014, up from 60 percent.