A derailed oil train continues to burn in northwestern Illinois near the Mississippi River town of Galena more than 24 hours after it crashed.
It is the third fiery derailment of trains carrying crude from the Bakken area of North Dakota in the past three weeks, raising more questions about the volatility of the oil and the safety of the tank cars used to transport crude.
No one was hurt when the BNSF Railway freight train derailed at about 1:20 p.m. Thursday in a hilly and heavily wooded area near where a tributary joins the Mississippi, about three miles south of Galena, IL.
In a statement, BNSF says 21 of the train's 103 tank cars loaded with light Bakken crude left the tracks and at least five of them ruptured and caught fire. Witnesses reported seeing the fireball from miles away.
Firefighters could only access the train wreck site on a bike path, and had to pull back because of the intensity of the flames and allow the blaze to burn itself out, according to Galena fire officials.
Federal and state railroad investigators are on the scene, as are officials from the federal and state EPAs and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to monitor the situation, but the railroad and Illinois Emergency Management officials said Friday that no spilled oil had reached the waters of the tributary or the Mississippi yet.
BNSF says the tank cars that derailed were all newer models known as 1232s, which are designed to be less prone to rupture than older tank cars, called DOT-111s. The rail industry voluntarily started using cars at the 1232 standard in 2011, with slightly thicker shells and half-height head shields, after a series of incidents involving DOT-111s, and anticipating that federal regulators would soon require sturdier tank cars.
But there are growing concerns that the 1232s are not strong enough. The Galena derailment is third fiery wreck involving 1232s in three weeks, including one in West Virginia last month. That CSX train was carrying 3 million gallons of North Dakota crude when it derailed, shooting fireballs into the sky, leaking oil into a nearby river and burning to the ground a nearby house.
"It certainly begs the question when ... those standards failed to prevent leakage and explosions that threaten human safety and environmental contamination, said Steve Bard, director of the Jo Davies Conservation Foundation, in an interview with the AP. The foundation owns a nature preserve a few hundred yards from the Illinois derailment site.
Critics say the U.S. Department of Transportation has been too slow to develop new tank car standards, even after the explosion of a runaway oil train in Lac Megantic, Quebec in July, 2013, which destroyed dozens of buildings in the small town's downtown area, killing 47 people.
Newly proposed standards are now being reviewed by the White House.
"Nationally, the rising number of fiery train derailments across the country is unacceptable. The Administration should act now to finalize their rule to strengthen tank car standards," said Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois in a statement.
"In the coming days, we need to look at not just the safety of the rail cars, but the safety of what is being put into those cars," Durbin continues. "There is mounting evidence that stricter standards are needed in the handling of Bakken crude which appears to be particularly volatile. We can't wait. The safety of our communities depends on it."
New state rules will go into effect in North Dakota on April 1 that will require oil producers to remove excess natural gas from the crude before shipping it by rail to help reduce volatility.
Reuters reports that the Obama administration considered national standards to control explosive gas in oil trains last year, but rejected the move, deciding to leave the rules to North Dakota alone. Current and former administration officials told Reuters that they were unsure of federal jurisdiction to force the energy industry to drain volatile gas from crude oil originating in North Dakota's fields.
Instead, they opted to back North Dakota's effort to remove the cocktail of explosive gas — known in the industry as "light ends" — and rely on the state to contain the risk.
But a DOT spokeswoman tells Politico the Reuters story is inaccurate.