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Mayor: North Dakota town dodged a bullet in crude explosion

| Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013, 6:54 p.m.
Crude oil tanker cars continue to burn at the site of an oil train derailment Tuesday, Dec 31, 2013, in Casselton, N.D. The train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded on Monday. (AP Photo/Bruce Crummy)

CASSELTON, N.D. — A southeastern North Dakota town narrowly escaped tragedy when a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded nearby, the mayor said Tuesday, calling for changes in how the fuel is transported across the nation.

No one was hurt in the derailment on Monday of the mile-long train that sent a great fireball and plumes of black smoke skyward about a mile from the small town of Casselton. The fire had been so intense as darkness fell that investigators couldn't get close enough to count the number of burning cars. The National Transportation Safety Board started an investigation.

Most residents heeded a recommendation to evacuate their homes as strong winds blew potentially hazardous, acrid smoke toward the town overnight, Mayor Ed McConnell said. Black soot coated parts of Casselton.

“I drove in this morning and looked like most people had left. There weren't a lot of lights on,” McConnell said.

The North Dakota Department of Health warned that exposure to burning crude could cause shortness of breath, coughing and itching and watery eyes. It had said those in the vicinity with respiratory conditions such as asthma, bronchitis or emphysema should minimize outdoor activity.

As the wrecked tankers continued to smolder on Tuesday, Cass County Sheriff's Sgt. Tara Morris said a contractor hired by the railroad was testing air quality. Readings indicated improvements but authorities aren't yet prepared to “give the all-clear,” Morris said.

McConnell estimated that dozens of people could have been killed if the derailment had happened within the town. He said it is time to “have a conversation” with federal lawmakers about the dangers of transporting oil by rail.

“There have been numerous derailments in this area,” he said. “It's almost gotten to the point that it looks like not if we're going to have an accident, it's when. We dodged a bullet by having it out of town, but this is too close for comfort.”

A train carrying crude from North Dakota's Bakken oil patch crashed in Quebec last summer, bursting into flames and killing 47 people.

Shipping oil by pipeline has to be a safer option, McConnell said.

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