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More than 40 mile-long trains, each carrying more than 3 million gallons of Bakken crude, pass through Cass County every week.

Documents: Cass County has most oil-by-rail traffic in North Dakota

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Fargo, ND - More than 40 mile-long trains, each carrying more than 3 million gallons of Bakken crude, pass through Cass County every week – the most crude-by-rail traffic in North Dakota, according to documents released by North Dakota officials on Wednesday.

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A May 7 executive order from the U.S. Department of Transportation forced major Bakken shippers to provide states with estimates of how much of the light crude moves through each county weekly, with updates when those volumes change by more than 25 percent. The order came after a year marked by several fiery accidents involving Bakken crude trains, including the Dec. 30 derailment in Casselton.

Railroads like BNSF Railway fought the public release of those documents in North Dakota and other states, pressuring state officials to sign a confidentiality agreement in exchange for turning the information over.

But on Wednesday, the State Emergency Response Commission – the state entity tasked with receiving shipment estimates – voted unanimously against signing that agreement and agreed they must be released to the public. That decision came with the backing of the Attorney General’s office, which found no legal authority to withhold the documents.

The Forum obtained the document through an open records request. Officials in Minnesota cited an exemption state’s open records law that allows them to withhold “security information” when asked about the information. 

Three railroads were required by the executive order to turn over estimates to North Dakota: BNSF, Canadian Pacific Railway and Northern Plains Railroad, a regional short-line railroad.

According to their documents, BNSF moved an average of 40 Bakken crude trains weekly through Cass County in the first three weeks of June. An average of three CP trains moved through Cass County. Northern Plains’ track network does not extend to southeastern North Dakota.

Booming oil production in western North Dakota, combined with a lack of pipeline infrastructure, has pushed an unprecedented amount of crude onto the rails. Most crude-by-rail shipments out of the Bakken bottleneck through the Fargo-Moorhead before heading to southern or East Coast refineries.

The estimates will come as little surprise to emergency preparedness officials and first responders who have monitored crude-by-rail traffic after a year marked by several fiery train wrecks. The documents detail no specific routes, start and end points or times.

Several members of the commission questioned the value of such broad estimates to first responders.

“They watch the trains go through their community each and every day,” said Chairman Greg Wilz, the state’s director of Homeland Security. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say, ‘Hey, that’s the second train today.’”

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