The U.S. Transportation Department issued an emergency order Wednesday requiring that railroads inform state emergency management officials before transporting large shipments of crude oil from the Bakken region through their states, and provide details such as the amount of oil being moved, the frequency of expected train traffic and the route the oil will travel.
The order also urged railroads not to use older model tanks cars that are easily ruptured in accidents, even at slow speeds, but to switch to newer models with stronger construction. The agency is working on revising its rules regarding the integrity of oil tank cars.
The order applies to any train shipment of Bakken crude that's one million gallons or more, or approximately 35 tank cars.
"All options are on the table when it comes to improving the safe transportation of crude oil, and today's actions, the latest in a series that make up an expansive strategy, will ensure that communities are more informed and that companies are using the strongest possible tank cars," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in the statement.
Oil from the Bakken region in North Dakota, Montana and part of Canada is being shipped all over the country, often on trains of 100 cars or more. There's growing concern about the safety of those shipments going through metropolitan areas, or towns that may not be prepared to handle a derailment or fire involving the oil, MPR News reports.
The Star Tribune reported recently that eight oil trains of about 110 cars each pass through Minnesota every day, with six of them traveling through the Twin Cities metro area, and that emergency responders feel ill-prepared to handle an accident.
Bakken crude oil is more volatile than other types of crude, and several major accidents involving oil trains led to Wednesday's order.
One of those accidents took place in Casselton, North Dakota, a town about 20 miles west of Fargo, in December. It happened when a freight train loaded with grain derailed and collided with an oil train just outside of town.
Eighteen cars on the 106-car oil train derailed and burned in a spectacular fire that sent black smoke billowing into the air, and caused the town to evacuate. About 400,000 gallons of oil spilled as a result.
Shortly afterward, lawmakers on the federal and state levels stepped up their scrutiny of oil shipments by rail, and called for more oversight as well as more training for emergency responders.
Two weeks ago, Transportation Secretary Foxx came to Casselton and acknowledged that federal authorities needed to do more to boost rail safety tied to Bakken oil, according to MPR.