North Dakota health official: Cleanup at oil train derailment site 'all but complete'

BISMARCK, N.D. – Cleanup of an oil train derailment on the outskirts of a small southeastern North Dakota town “is all but complete,” a state health official said Wednesday.

“We’ve identified a couple of small spots that still smell of oil, but cleanup for the most part is done,” said Dave Glatt, chief of North Dakota Department of Health’s environmental health section.

The Dec. 30 collision occurred when a BNSF Railway train carrying soybeans derailed and caused another company train carrying crude oil to derail 1 mile west of Casselton. The wreck sparked massive explosions, towering fireballs and an ominous cloud that hung over the city of about 2,400 residents. No one was hurt, but about 1,400 people voluntarily evacuated.

The derailment highlighted worries about shipping crude by rail and led to a safety alert from the U.S. Department of Transportation warning about the potential high volatility of crude from the rich oil fields of western North Dakota and eastern Montana.

Federal investigators determined 400,000 gallons of oil was lost when the oil-carrying train derailed and caught fire.

Glatt, who spoke to The Associated Press by telephone from the crash site Wednesday, said about 10,000 tons of oil-tainted dirt and other material has been removed by contractors working for the railroad. The company, based on the inspection Wednesday, has permission to begin backfilling the site with new soil, he said.

“They are good to go,” said Glatt, adding that regulators had estimated the cleanup of the fouled soil would last at least through the first part of summer. “They wanted to backfill in with good soil before the spring rains come and turn the whole area into a quagmire.”

Glatt said the state requires the monitoring of water runoff from the site at least through spring. BNSF also will be required to monitor groundwater for at least two years, he said.

“We want to continue to monitor that site, as a precaution,” BNSF Railway spokeswoman Amy McBeth said. “We will continue to work with the state Department of Health, as we have from the beginning.”

Most of the fouled dirt was taken by truck to out-of-state landfills, McBeth said. The tangled and charred wreckage of 15 grain cars and 21 oil tank cars that had been strewn in the area also has been hauled away, she said.

McBeth said the railroad would not disclose the cost of the cleanup.

Casselton Mayor Ed McConnell said things were beginning to return to normal in the small town, about 30 miles west of Fargo.

“It’s better than it was,” he said of the wreck site. “But there still is a good healthy mistrust of that track.”