The 1.6-km-long train carrying crude oil derailed at 2:10 pm local time Monday. The following explosion sent a fireball and massive clouds of toxic black smoke billowing up into the air about a mile from the town’s perimeter. The accident has the town’s major calling for changes in how the fuel is transported across the US.
The North Dakota Department of Health warned that health hazards associated with exposure to burning crude include 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, the CBC reports.
While no one was hurt in the explosion, the fire had been so intense that investigators were unable to get close enough to count the number of rail cars still burning. Mayor Ed McConnell said that most residents are evacuating as strong winds blew potentially hazardous smoke their direction overnight Monday. "I drove in this morning and looked like most people had left. There weren't a lot of lights on," McConnell said.
Cass County Sheriff's Sgt. Tara Morris said Tuesday that a contractor hired by the railroad was testing air quality and while the readings indicated improvements, authorities did not yet feel it safe enough to "give the all-clear."
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While this accident is horrific, it could have been much worse, as the train tracks run straight through the middle of Casselton, a town of 2,400 people. McConnell estimated that dozens of people could have been killed if the derailments had happened within city limits. He said it is time to "have a conversation" with federal lawmakers about the dangers of transporting oil by rail.