A dramatic accident

The Williston Basin is an area of oil and gas deposits that covers most of North Dakota and extends west into Montana, north into Saskatchewan and Manitoba and south into South Dakota. The area is also known as the Bakken Shale Play. Geologists have known about the petroleum deposits in the area for decades. In the 1980’s, when we lived in Southwest North Dakota, there was a boom of oil and gas exploration and new wells, driven by the higher prices for gas and oil following the shortages of the 1970’s. Much of the transient traffic in our town consisted of people heading to the basin in search of jobs. New techniques for drilling and the drive to increase US oil production in this century have driven additional activities in the area. The crude oil that comes out of the ground has to be transported. There are no oil refineries in the immediate area. Some of that oil is loaded onto unit trains and shipped west to refineries on the coast of Washington. One of those refineries is about three miles from where our son and his family have their farm.

I have some sense of the journey that the crude oil takes because I’ve driven between the Dakotas and the west coast many times. Over the years that our son has lived in Washington, we have visited family in northern Montana on our way to Washington and driven the high line from Williston, North Dakota to the coast, following US highway 2 all the way. I’ve seen the trains with their oil cars on the tracks at various points along the journey.

Yesterday as I was working in the shop at the farm, milling some wood for trim in their house, I heard several loud booms. They were coming from the northeast and I didn’t think much of them. It was the first snowfall of the year and the children were having a grand time playing in the snow, so I took a break to look at their snow fort. As I stepped out of the shop, I could see a large smoke plume rising from the northeast. I’m not good at estimating distance, but I could tell that it was a significant fire. There was no immediate danger and so I checked on the children and went back to work. There mother was taking pictures of their play and sending them to family, so I got the images on my phone as I worked.

In the early afternoon we found out what was going on. A neighbor had come in from the Interstate, on the road I had taken to get to the farm earlier that morning, and reported that there was a train derailment and fire at Custer, just a couple of miles away. They had evacuated a 1/2 mile radius from the fire, which included closing the Interstate highway in both directions. We checked the Internet and sure enough the train derailment and fire was big news. It turned out that at least seven train cars, filled with Bakken crude oil, had derailed and two of them were on fire as well as oil spilled in the accident. Checking the news later in the evening, after I had returned to our home, taking the back roads to avoid the area, I discovered that there had been a big response, involving the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, the Washington State Patrol, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, local fire departments and fire departments from two oil refineries as well as a response team from Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad. Officials from the EPA and Washington Environmental Division also responded.

Other than stinky smoke which settled on the area, we weren’t affected by the accident, but it was a reminder that transporting fuel is a dangerous process and accidents can pose a significant danger to people.

Over the years, we have learned a lot about the risks of pipelines that transport crude oil. There have been many leaks in the Dakotas with oil headed south to refineries in the heartland and on the Gulf Coast. Our demand for energy has resulted in a huge system of transport and trains are a major part of that system. In addition to unit trains carrying crude oil, there are unit trains carrying coal from mines in Wyoming to the west coast where the coal is loaded onto ships and transported to Japan.

If you think about it the scale of the operation is incredible. Just producing the diesel and heavy oil to power the trains and the ships is a significant operation involving the consumption of huge amounts of fuels. Most of the time we aren’t too aware of the process. We hear the train whistles in the night. Occasionally we get stopped at a train crossing. A couple of hours before the accident, I was stopped at a railroad crossing and watched a train that stretched back to the accident site crossing heading the opposite direction of the train that derailed. I would have been traveling on the same tracks as the accident train. I was in no hurry, but I did entertain myself by counting the oil tank cars on the train. I lost count somewhere between 50 and 60 and the train kept going. These days a huge unit train consisting of more than 100 cars is usually staffed with only two people on board.

As I left the farm yesterday, I saw a helicopter circling the accident site. I assumed they were a news crew and wondered if they were getting any usable pictures with all of the smoke at the site. By the time I got home, there were pictures on the Internet and an article about the accident on the USA Today website as well as additional information on local news sites. It was the lead story on the local Public Radio station at 4 pm.

The site will be cleaned. The tracks will be repaired. Trains will be running to and from the refineries before too long. The demand for fuel is too high for things to stop for long. But for a moment folks in the area paused yesterday and were reminded of the high cost of our appetite for fuel.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!