Four months before a runaway train carrying 74 cars of crude oil from the Bakken oilfield of North Dakota derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec,  a U.S. government safety agency  was planning an investigation into whether the oil was more volatile than shippers thought.

A report by the Globe and Mail last week said the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration, both part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, began planning in March to conduct unannounced onsite inspections at railroad loading sites to determine if enough precautions were being taken in handling the light Bakken crude.

Bakken crude moves by rail from North Dakota to a refinery in Saint John, Canada.

On July 6,  a 74-car train operated by Maine & Atlantic Railway carrying Bakken crude oil derailed and exploded in the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. At least 45 people were killed and 30 buildings in the downtown area were destroyed.

The U.S. safety plan, dubbed ‘Operation Classification,’ became known to the public Thursday, the Globe and Mail said, ‘when officials in Washington disclosed that investigators had followed through on the planned investigation and had started descending on oil-loading terminals in North Dakota over the weekend.’

Operation Classification is focusing on concerns that Bakken crude is lighter than most North American crude, giving it a lower flashpoint.

Higher combustibility would drive decisions about how full tank cars should be loaded, among other things


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