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What if an oil train derails in Detroit Lakes?

Craig Fontaine, who serves as the Becker County Emergency Services manager, is working on a contingency plan for the county if an oil train were to derail in the area. Brian Basham/Record1 / 2
A Burlington Northern santa fe train pulling oil cars from the North Dakota oil fields speeds through Detroit Lakes. Brian Basham/Record2 / 2

An estimated 96 Burlington Northern Santa Fe trains per day travel through Lake Park, Audubon, Detroit Lakes and Frazee, many of them hauling tanker cars full of shale oil from the Bakken development in western North Dakota.

About 750,000 barrels of oil is now dispersed in all directions by rail from the Bakken, which is on course to soon produce 1 million barrels of oils a day.

Unlike other crude oil, which is slow to ignite, let alone explode, Bakken crude has shown itself to be highly explosive — some have compared it more to jet fuel than crude oil.

Federal regulators are checking into it, and believe Bakken crude might contain a high level of natural gas byproducts, such as propane and butane.

The wakeup call came with the derailment of a runaway crude-oil train in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July that caused an explosion that leveled the downtown and killed 47 people. That tourist town has about the same population as Detroit Lakes.

The disaster was thought by industry experts to be a fluke, until another oil-train derailed and blew up in Alabama in November.

Last month, a derailment near Casselton, N.D., resulted in multiple explosions as tanker cars caught fire and blew up.

Earlier this month, a similar accident occurred in New Brunswick, Canada.

No one was hurt in the latest three derailments, but people living nearby had to be evacuated.

BNSF has slowed eastbound trains to 25 mph in a several-mile stretch through Detroit Lakes.

But the question remains — what happens if an oil train derails in Detroit Lakes, or any other town along the BNSF or Canadian Pacific rail lines in Becker County?

Craig Fontaine, who was hired as half-time emergency services manager for Becker County in July, has been working on it.

He said there is a four- or five-mile stretch of BNSF double track through Detroit Lakes on which a derailment and explosion like occurred in Lac-Megantic would be catastrophic.

That explosion leveled buildings half a mile in each direction, Fontaine said.

Most of Detroit Lakes’ critical infrastructure is within that six-block range, he noted.

That includes the fire department, the police department, the sheriff’s office, the courthouse, the hospital and the ambulance service.

The nature of his job requires Fontaine to think through all sorts of possibilities.

For instance, if the schools have to be evacuated after a derailment, buses may have to come from out of town — because even the school buses (at Olander Bus Services and Schultz Garage and Bus Co.) are parked very close to the BNSF tracks.

Same with the fire department, which is just across Highway 10 from the BNSF rail corridor. A derailment and explosion there would destroy the building, along with the trucks and equipment inside. The city would have to depend on outside help to fight the inferno.

A derailment near the Roosevelt Avenue underpass would block access to the hospital.

“In (Lac-Megantic) Canada it affected four to six city blocks in each direction,” Fontaine said. “That would be devastating here, it really would.”

He has been busy lining up mutual aid agreements and memorandums of understanding with local governments and emergency services in the region.

The county has to request mutual aid in the event of an emergency. “If they just show up, it’s a red flag to FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and they won’t pay their expenses,” Fontaine said.

Part of his job is tracking expenses so they qualify for FEMA reimbursement, whether the disaster is a flood, fire, tornado or derailment, he said.

In the event of a large-scale emergency, when regional resources aren’t enough, Fontaine will request specific help from specific sources through the state FEMA duty officer. A ladder truck from the Bemidji Fire Department, for instance.

The big Green Valley wildfire in Hubbard and Becker counties occurred in mid-May, before Fontaine came on board in July, but it involved fire departments from around the state, he said.

“We’re working with key players so we’ll be ready,” he said. “It’s better to exchange business cards before the event than after the event.”

In a similar spirit of preparedness, a new emergency operations center is taking shape on the third floor of the Becker County Courthouse.

It includes an interactive screen for face-to-face conversations and training, a large conference table, space for a number of people to meet at once, and will eventually have three wall-mounted TV sets to track the news in case of a major disaster.

The good news on oil-train safety is that railroads and energy companies agreed Jan. 16 to take action to make it safer to ship crude oil by rail.

The voluntary changes, which include improved tanker-car safety, were announced after a meeting called by the U.S. Department of Transportation, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The rail industry agreed to study re-routing trains around high-risk areas (like major cities) in the next 30 days.

Railroads will also work on speed reduction in the riskiest areas.

And the railroads will look at where to place additional locomotives to help prevent derailments.

The oil industry agreed to share information on the content of crude oil to be moved by rail.

Both agreed to come up with recommendations for improving tank-car safety standards within 30 days.

The railroad companies don’t own most of the rail cars they transport, including tanker-cars. They cannot refuse to haul them, and yet are liable for any damage caused by derailments.

“The railroads want to keep it safe, they really do,” Fontaine said. “Nobody wants a derailment — nobody.”