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Upside Down Under

By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News


Let's not forget accountability...

Posted 1/08/14 (Wed)

Just three weeks ago this column referred people to a December article in a major Canadian newspaper regarding the danger and volatility of crude oil trains rolling through North Dakota.
Days later, the Department of Mineral Resources announced oil by rail will increase by 30 percent in 2014. About the same time the governor went on TV to tell North Dakotans he was appointing a task force to study safety of oil trains in the wake of the Lac-Megantic, Quebec disaster and the Pickens County, Alabama explosion.
On Monday, a similar explosion occurred in Casselton, making this the third unit train loaded with North Dakota oil in six months to explode.
Forty-seven people dead, about 300 rail cars affected, the city of Casselton evacuated: Again, I will say what I wrote three weeks ago, what if? What if that train exploded in the middle of Casselton instead of a mile west of town? 
I also find it interesting that Monday’s explosion almost instantly became a major news item across the globe but one of the TV networks in western North Dakota didn’t even broadcast it until the 10 o’clock news, even though it happened at 2 in the afternoon.
Something like this obviously has a lot of news value. In fact, the Lac-Megantic disaster was the top news story in Canada in 2013, so you can imagine the intensity of how the Casselton explosion played out in the Canadian media on Tuesday. 
Front page of the Winnipeg Free Press, front page of the Los Angeles Times, a series of articles in the Toronto Globe and Mail, prominent play on CNN, coverage on NBC’s Today Show, this was discussed on CBC and the BBC, as well as intense local media coverage.
On Tuesday, Casselton was filling the airwaves on talk radio but I don’t recall any journalist asking the question, nor anyone on air or quoted in newspapers discussing accountability.
Who is accountable for this? After Lac-Megantic, the Department of Mineral Resources shifted the responsibility to rail regulators. 
On Monday night, Ilene and a close friend and I got into a spirited discussion about this third train to explode in six months.
And we agreed, accidents are going to happen. We are human, we will make mistakes and when we make mistakes strange things occur.
However, Ilene made an interesting point. Why were none of us aware of the danger of these trains until a Canadian newspaper, the Toronto Globe and Mail, released this information on Dec. 3?
At the time, the Department of Mineral Resources told the Globe and Mail they didn’t know about the volatility of Bakken oil and had nothing to compare it with. Hooey!
But as our discussion went, emergency management was overwhelmed on Monday and Tuesday. Lack of equipment, not knowing the kinds of toxins being released into the atmosphere and extreme cold causing hazardous chemicals to linger were all reasons there needs to be transparency during an issue like this.
In addition, as this article was written at noon Tuesday, the governor hadn’t made a statement about a major disaster in his home county. It’s interesting he is so quick to point out the record number of barrels of oil being pumped or the massive amount of money in the state’s coffers.
But here’s a disaster in his back yard, it’s almost 24 hours later and all we’ve received is a message from the governor’s press secretary about the National Guard being on standby. Nor has there been a statement from Mineral Resources. Don’t you find that very peculiar?
We need to know exactly what’s on those trains and what kind of chemicals are present. If these “wagons” are going to move, then maybe those who live near tracks should be completely aware of the impending consequences.
Lynn Helms told the Associated Press just a couple of weeks ago that Bakken oil trains are safe and that he was putting together a white paper to disprove “theories” of volatility. At least six sizzling explosions, a mushroom cloud of fire 300 feet in the air, 47 people dead in Quebec. Yup, that’s a “safe train” all right.
There’s yet another concern that nobody has yet mentioned since July 6 so I’m going to bring it up now because someone needs to mention it. 
Since I have a military mind, I sometimes think about sabotage and how to stop it. When there is a product that valuable and that dangerous, there had better be a contingency plan. What if foreign operatives, or just plain shysters, decide they want to blow up an oil train? Apparently, it’s pretty easy  if a spark will ignite this liquid at 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
I remember going through great lengths to secure ammunition and explosives during Army missions. And in my 35 years of blowing stuff up, I’ve never seen an explosion as intense as WDAY-TV’s video on Monday. Somebody had better be thinking about security as well as preventing accidents instead of trying to disprove a newspaper report of how dangerous these trains might be. Something had better change and soon!