The rail cars that split open and burst into flames during a western Illinois oil train derailment were retrofitted with protective shields to meet a higher safety standard than federal law requires, railroad officials said.
The fire continued to burn Friday, a day after 21 of the train’s 105 cars derailed in a rural area south of the city of Galena. No injuries were reported, but the accident was the latest in a series of failures for the safer tank-car model that has led some people calling for even tougher requirements.
Fort Worth-based BNSF Railway said in a news release that the train’s tank cars were a newer model known as the 1232, which was designed during safety upgrades voluntarily adopted by the industry four years ago in hopes of keeping cars from rupturing during derailments. But 1232 standard cars involved in three other accidents have split open in the past year.
Those other accidents included one last month in West Virginia in which a train carrying 3 million gallons of North Dakota crude derailed, shooting fireballs into the sky, leaking oil into a waterway and burning down a house. The home’s owner was treated for smoke inhalation, but no one else was injured.
Thursday’s accident in Illinois led local officials to announce a voluntary evacuation of an area within 1 mile because of the presence of a propane tank near the derailment. Only a family of two agreed to leave their home, Galena City Administrator Mark Moran said Thursday.
A railway spokesman initially said six cars derailed. But in an update Friday, BNSF said it found 21 cars had derailed in an area where the Galena River meets the Mississippi. The company said a resulting fire is believed to have spread to five rail cars, and emergency personnel were trying to contain the blaze.
The train had 103 cars loaded with crude oil from the Bakken region, along with two buffer cars loaded with sand, according to company spokesman Andy Williams. The cause of the derailment hasn’t been determined.
The accident occurred 3 miles south of Galena in a wooded and hilly area that is a major tourist attraction and the home of former President Ulysses S. Grant.
As of June of 2014, BNSF was hauling 32 Bakken oil trains per week through the surrounding Jo Daviess County, according to information disclosed to Illinois emergency officials.
Firefighters could only access the derailment site by a bike path, said Galena Assistant Fire Chief Bob Conley. They had to pull back initially for safety reasons, but by midday Friday officials described the area as “stable.”
The Federal Railroad Administration said its investigators expected to have access to the site around noon, and it has not yet been able to determine if any crude oil spilled into nearby waterways.
BNSF said it was taking steps to prevent contamination.
Recent derailments have increased public concern about the safety of shipping crude by train. According to the Association of American Railroads, oil shipments by rail jumped from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 500,000 in 2014, driven by a boom in the Bakken oil patch of North Dakota and Montana, where pipeline limitations force 70 percent of the crude to move by rail.
Since 2008, oil train derailments in the U.S. and Canada have caused 70,000-gallon tank cars to break open and ignite on multiple occasions, resulting in huge fires.
The wrecks have intensified pressure on the administration of President Barack Obama to approve tougher standards for railroads and tank cars, despite industry complaints that it could cost billions and slow freight deliveries.
Oil industry officials had been opposed to further upgrading the 1232 cars because of costs. But late last year they changed their position and joined with the railway industry to support some upgrades, although they asked for time to make the improvements.