A Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad train went off the tracks near the small village of Heimdal, North Dakota, just east of Harvey, about 7:30 this morning. That’s not news any more, since the train was pulling 109 tank cars of oil, and when six of them caught on fire, it made national news pretty quickly, because it’s just the latest in a long string of oil train derailments resulting in big fires.
Since Heimdal is just a hundred miles or so from my house, I decided to go take a look for myself. I mean, I might never get to see an oil train fire close up again, and ever since my newspaper reporter days back in the 1970s, I’ve always chased fire trucks. I’m glad I went.
What I learned was that it was not the spectacular show put on by the derailment at Casselton a year and a half ago, thanks to the fact that the oil was in newer, safer tanker cars. What I saw when I arrived about three hours after the derailment was mostly smoke, sometimes black, sometimes white, as the oil in the six cars that caught fire slowly burned itself out.
What was pretty amazing was the local response by mostly volunteer fire departments and BNSF. By the time I arrived, they had set up road blocks on all roads that would have taken sightseers like me closer than two miles from the fire. I bluffed my way past the fellow guarding the south entrance from Highway 15 into Heimdal by just shouting “News Media” but was still stopped more than a mile from town, where all the other news media had gathered. That location offered nothing, so I got out my North Dakota atlas and headed out across country.
The officials had done a good job of blocking off gravel roads north and east of Heimdal, with signs that said “No Thru Traffic,” but since I wasn’t planning on “going thru” anywhere, I just drove around them and ended up down at the tracks about half a mile east of the accident. (My years in the news business have taught me you can’t get the story (or the photo) from two miles away. I guess they don’t teach that in journalism school these days. Do they still have journalism schools?) I pulled into an abandoned farmyard and as I got out of my Jeep, I looked up and saw a caravan of vehicles led by flashing lights coming down the road behind me. Uh-oh, I thought. Busted.
But the caravan stopped on top of the hill half a mile away, and then I realized it was a police escort for the news media. Reporters with cameras clambered out of mostly SUV’s and set up tripods on top the hill and began shooting video, over the top of my head, of the fire (more accurately, smoke) from more than a mile away from the accident. I watched in anticipation of that police escort coming down to tell me to get out, but after about ten minutes of filming, they all turned around and drove away.
Next came a BNSF pickup with flashing lights. A BNSF employee drove up, parked beside me, and we started to visit. He asked me if I was a neighbor, and I nodded and pointed to my camera–“Just came to take a few pictures.” I asked him what had happened. He said the rail “split” about a quarter of a mile east of Heimdal. I asked how that could happen. He said it is not unusual in places like North Dakota, with extreme climate changes. In the winter, the tracks shrink from the cold. In the spring, they begin to expand again from the warm weather. Splits happen.
As we walked over to the tracks, he showed me the track maintenance that was going on. Between where we were, east of Heimdal, and the accident site, the company had been lifting up the track and putting about 12 inches of new rocks and gravel under it, and then setting the track back down and “shaking” it into place in the new bed of rocks. That process ended about half way down the track,where the old rail bed was still in place. He said down where the accident occurred, they had been doing the same thing. In one of the photos I took a little later, you can see where the new rail bed runs up against the old one.
The fellow I was talking to said he had been among the first on the scene this morning, and he said he had helped get the engine and 80 cars out of there after the accident, leaving 29 cars behind, six of which had caught fire. At least one had spilled its oil into the slough next to the track, Then he said he was going to walk down to the accident site and inspect the tracks along the way. I asked him if he minded if I walked along, but he said his bosses wouldn’t like that, so I stayed where I was.
I watched him walk slowly down the track, stopping to look down carefully once in a while, and to talk to someone on his cell phone. As he neared the site, two other BNSF employees who had come from another direction met him and the three of them conferred for a few minutes before he headed back. When he got back, he said the tank cars were nearly burned out, but the oil that had leaked about 500 yards out into the slough was burning, and they were just going to let it burn, rather than put it out and try to clean it up later. Made sense to me.
I asked him how long it had been between the previous train coming down these tracks and this one. He said he thought about 20 minutes between trains. “This is a busy track.” He said they were going to have to get to work as soon as possible cleaning this up and getting the tracks re-opened. “This is a main line. We can’t leave it shut down very long.”
With that, he turned and headed for his pickup, looking back over his shoulder to say “I’d appreciate it if you would stay off the tracks.”
I’d seen enough. My camera and I got in the car and followed him back to the highway, and headed home. I got here in time to watch the six o’clock news on the two local TV stations. Lame. One got the location wrong, placing it west of Heimdal, instead of just east of the town. The other had obviously sent a rookie reporter who couldn’t manage the sound, and her report was barely audible with the wind blowing in her microphone. Both had the same footage, shot from the top of the hill half a mile behind me.
There’s no doubt this will be a national story, although it appears to have been the least spectacular of the many oil train accidents in the last couple of years. We’ve dodged another bullet. This happened not more than half a mile east of the houses in Heimdal, by my estimation. The Heimdal elevator can be seen clearly not far from the fire in the photos I shot.
Take a look at those photos. You can see clearly how uneven the tracks are, although they are a little distorted by the telephoto lense I was using. Still, pretty easy to see how a train might run off tracks like that. Maybe we ought to have some state inspectors . . .
11 thoughts on “15 Minutes Of Fame For Heimdal, Between Harvey And Hamberg”
As I am sitting here watching the evening report on our local Bismarck station, I am infuriated once again.
A month or so ago, our state leadership released “Surge Funding”, a significant amount in the millions of dollars for state infrastructure and new building in oil related counties. “Build, Build, Build ” they’re telling the contractors, business owners and investors. Yet, as mass amounts of cutbacks and layoffs in the oil field are happening each week, and the reduction of rigs producing oil decreases, people are still building like crazy. Its almost as if they are driven by some unforeseen force of nature, to go against common sense and logic. I had an out of state investor tell me a couple of weeks ago that from his company’s perspective (and it’s a rather large well-known commercial builder) North Dakota is going about it all wrong and “There’s gonna be a lot of broke people pretty soon”. Apartments going up like crazy in Dickinson and yet there is a 60% occupancy rate. People are leaving. Of the ones who lost their jobs in the oilfield, the majority of those who left won’t be back. Three major apartment complexes that his company is building in the oilfield are 75% completed but they pulled the plug. Literally just walking away . I wonder if our state should have taken a more conservative approach. Instead of throwing all this money at all these counties, maybe more of a ” Hold on, let’s wait and see what gives” would have been more logical.
Maybe, use some of that funding to hire more than just “TWO” rail inspectors for the entire rail infrastructure of North Dakota. There’s a lot of track to be inspected here in ND, how much could two inspectors possibly do? I mean really, you can’t turn the news on anymore without there being some report about how our local State and Government has got so much money in oil revenues. Well, if that’s the case, let’s use a little common sense and spend it where it’s actually NEEDED. NOW.
In the last few months we have seen the detriment of oil travel by rail, most times catastrophic. (Thank God, this time was not as severe, but yet, consider 500 acres of land that burned, well, that land belonged to “someone”)
How many more spills, rail and tanker car wrecks and the like are we going to have to endure? Really, I cannot for the life of me understand that we just continue blindly on and on until the next accident…and again to the next…just patching up what has been damaged and continuing on..
We opened the gates to these oil companies to come into ND and make us rich. But it seems to me that the only ones getting rich are the lobbyists, the oil companies and quite a few people who sit up at the capitol. Prove me wrong.
Thank you for the report! I will share your blog link on my page. I wish we could share it on the local news channels and even the national media. Two sentences are not enough to cover the complex political forces that are jeopardizing our communities. I thought it was interesting that forty some people were evacuated, about the same number that died in the Canada derailment. The local news girl said that Casselton was the first derailment; maybe the it was the first in North Dakota.
Thank you for posting this. Your coverage of the accident offers information I didn’t find anywhere else.
Excellent report! I have read that the rail cars that leaked/burned were NOT the re-enforced versions that are required by 2020. Do you know what the truth of the matter is?
John, they are the new cars, but do not yet have the re-enforcing that will be required.
Hi Mr. Fuglie.
I saw you tonight on the Boomtowners show. I must say I am not much impressed with the show. As a former member of the oil patch, there is nothing new here. 30 years ago in N. D. there was a housing boom, crime and struggling workers. I’m still waiting for the show to bring on a geologist to explain how THIS boom is different. It is interesting how they have more train crashes now. I read where democrat sponsor George Soros is a big owner of train stock, so he’s happy. The guy trying to buy a house sounds pathetic. Then there’s the 16-year-old truck driver. At least he sounds 16. What’s your opinion on the show? Maybe it gets better, but we’ll see. Watch out for twisters!
The “he” you’re referring to is a early twenty-something lesbian truck driver. Just thought you’d like to know….
We’re thirty-some odd miles NW of Williston, right on the main BNSF line. I must see or hear at least fifteen oil trains a day, maybe more. I hope to hell those new tankers can do the job holding back any infernos because we’re a couple blocks from the tracks. A derailment in town would be a disaster. It’d probably set off the big Farmers Union elevator complex and that would add a million bushels of wheat to the combustion. I’ve seen a couple grain elevator fires. Mix that with Bakken crude and you’d have something akin to a volcanic eruption.
Note to self: move before this little town goes up like Mount Doom when it swallowed the One Ring.
Have viewed a few episodes of Boomtowners (seldom can I stay for an entire episode-too depressing when you consider what all this is doing to the aquifer and environment in that area.) Have heard the huge amount of water required for this fracking extraction of oil but have not heard what happens to this waste water generated. Is it stored in tanks or reservoirs or dumped in rivers or lakes? Or does it find its way back to the aquifer? Think I heard somewhere that the water supply would be depleted in 20 years due to this.
Jane, I am not sure, but I think some of it comes back up with the oil and is disposed of–re-injected–in deep underground wells. And I suppose some of it just stays down there. I’m guessing ultimately most of the water is going to have to come from the Missouri River–Lake Sakakawea–where there is pretty much an unlimited supply. Otherwise we’re going to deplete our groundwater.
Does not sound too good. If this waste water goes back into ground wells believe it will eventually wind up in aquifer contaminating it much like our atomic bomb activity contaminated the aquifer in the Arizona/New Mexico region. We are not very good in ocean water desalination as a source for providing our water needs. Hope someone is thinking far ahead. Gotta have water to live!