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35,000 gallons of oil spills after Montana train derailment

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Four tank cars leaked an estimated 35,000 gallons of oil after a train hauling fuel from North Dakota derailed in rural northeastern Montana, authorities said.

The spill marked the latest in a series of wrecks across the U.S. and Canada that have highlighted the safety risks of moving crude by rail.

No one was reported injured in the accident Thursday night that triggered the evacuation of about a dozen homes and a camp for oil field workers, according to state and local officials. It comes after recent oil train crashes, including a 2013 derailment in Quebec that exploded and killed 47 people.

The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway train was bound for Anacortes, Washington, when it derailed about 5 miles east of the small town of Culbertson, near the North Dakota border, officials said.

A hazardous-materials team contained the spill with earthen dams, and the oil didn’t affect any waterways, according to a preliminary report by Michael Turnbull of the U.S. Department of Transportation to Montana’s Public Service Commission.

The report was based on information provided by BNSF, said Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Michael Booth said.

Unlike many prior oil train accidents, no explosions or fire were reported. The cars knocked over a power line as they left the tracks, and firefighters sprayed foam on the wreckage to prevent a fire as they worked to clean up the oil, according to Roosevelt County Chief Deputy Sheriff Corey Reum and BNSF spokesman Matt Jones.

“We’re lucky it didn’t ignite,” Reum said.

Residents who lived within a half-mile radius were evacuated, but the evacuation order was lifted for most of the area Friday morning.

About 30 people living in the workers camp were being kept out until the remaining oil was offloaded from the tank cars, Montana Department of Emergency Services spokesman Maj. Chris Lende said. That work was expected to be completed late Friday.

The wreck forced the closure of U.S. Highway 2, the region’s main artery. A single lane re-opened Friday afternoon, with traffic being guided past the derailment site by a pilot car, Roosevelt County Sheriff Jason Frederickson said.

There was no immediate explanation of what caused more than 20 cars to topple from the train. It originated in Trenton, North Dakota, and had 106 loaded crude oil tank cars, two buffer cars and four locomotives, according to BNSF and state officials.

The tank cars typically haul about 30,000 gallons of oil apiece.

Two days earlier, a BNSF train carrying a mixed cargo derailed about 20 miles away from Thursday’s accident, damaging about a mile of track. There was no connection between the derailments, Jones said.

Officials from the Federal Railroad Administration and BNSF could not say when the track had last been inspected.

Roosevelt County is situated along one of the main corridors for Bakken oil shipments bound for refineries on the West Coast. About 12 BNSF oil trains a week pass through the county, according to information submitted by the railroad to state emergency officials.

Under a rule enacted in April, oil being shipped from North Dakota must be treated to reduce the chances of an explosion — by removing some of the volatile gases that are found in crude from the Bakken region of Montana and North Dakota. State and federal officials could not say if the shipment in Thursday’s accident had gone through that process.

A BNSF hazardous materials team arrived at the scene at about 3:30 a.m. Friday, more than nine hours after the derailment, according to the Montana Department of Emergency Services. Officials said other railroad personnel arrived Thursday night in the first hours after the accident.

Investigators from the Department of Transportation were on site Friday, according to the agency, along with police and other responders.

U.S. transportation officials recently extended an order for railroads to notify states about shipments of hazardous crude oil and put in place new rules that require sturdier construction of tank cars hauling hazardous liquids.

Critics have said the rules do not do enough to keep cars on the tracks and prevent derailments.

In addition to the 2013 Quebec accident, in which much of the town of Lac-Megantic was incinerated, trains hauling crude from the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana have been involved in fiery derailments in Alabama, Illinois, Virginia, West Virginia, Oklahoma and North Dakota.


Associated Press writers Thomas Peipert in Denver and Bob Seavey in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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