Monthly Archives: December 2013

Trains collide in Casselton, North Dakota, leading to giant fireball and toxic fire

December 30, 31 2013: Two BNSF trains collided about a mile west of Casselton, North Dakota, setting the crude oil that one of them was carrying on fire. The toxic plume of smoke from the fire has led to evacuations of the city, which is 25 miles west of Fargo. The fire’s black smoke is visible from space, as seen in the GOES satellite image below.


Meteorologist Aaron White: The smoke plume from the train collision was large enough that it could be seen on the visible satellite imagery just before sunset.

The most prolific hashtag on Twitter for the event is simply #Casselton.

Photo and video credit: Darrin Radermacher.

As always with a disaster like this, if you are in the affected area, you want to get information from a media source that is likely to be more up to date than this weblog.

First, news sources from nearby, then any links that make sense to tell the story.


  • WDAY Channel 6 – Train carrying crude oil derails near Casselton; Cass County Sheriff’s Office recommends evacuation of Casselton (w/ video)

Emergency and fire-fighting crews are respond-ing to the derailment, which Amy McBeth, a spokeswoman for BNSF, said occurred at around 2:10 p.m. McBeth said no crew members on the train were injured during the acci-dent. The train was 106 cars long and headed east-bound, she said.

The Cass County Sheriff’s Office is strongly recommending an evacuation of the entire City of Casselton and anyone residing five miles to the south and east of Casselton, effective immediately.

Information from the National Weather Service indicates a shift in the weather resulting in a high pressure system that will push the plume of smoke down increasing the risk of potential health hazards.

Scanner: Cass County scanners on Broadcastify. The best one to follow, according to the page, is the BNSF Fargo-Dilworth area Road and Yard railroad feed.

BNSF is the railroad involved. This is their service advisory to customers –

We have a preliminary report that at 02:10 p.m. Central time on December 30, 2013, GRYLRGT926 derailed on Main track 1 and impacted UFYNHAY405, causing it to derail on Main 2 just west of Casselton, North Dakota. Casselton, North Dakota is 25 miles west of Fargo, North Dakota.

At this time we have no estimate when the main tracks will reopen.


Facebook, where it’s hard to keep a conversation going and find it again later

I have taken to using Facebook as a place where I put a second copy
of something I’ve already written and published somewhere else.
That ensures that in some way I’ll be able to find it, probably by
googling my blog posts. Things written on Facebook disappear into
the ether too quickly (including this thread which will die quietly
when we are all done with it).

Facebook Communities suffer from the problem that they don’t really
provide an equal forum for all people to share jointly in a topic
discussion. Rather, they bias towards the moderator’s interests,
because only the posts from the moderator are visible for long
enough to get any traffic.

The problem of how to build forum software is old and solved. The
MTS Confer system and others that followed it like Picospan and Caucus
lived in a world where you could create a long-running discussion
that focused on one topic and where you could keep that topic mostly
on-topic over an extended period of time. Facebook, in contrast,
feels more like a big chat room, where yesterday’s posts scroll off
into nothingness and where you can’t get back to any discussion you
once had – no matter how good it was.

Twitter doesn’t give you the paragraph-sized chunks of discussion that
you need to actually have an intelligent conversation, but it does
have long-lived hashtags that enable a community of interest to form
and (with scheduled chats) thrive. It’s possible to find people who
you don’t know who share an interest and to communicate with them in
such a way that a simple enough search brings back something useful.
Nothing on Facebook behaves that way.

Further reading –

See this thread on Facebook which prompted this post, started by
Jim Benson and contributed to by Howard Rheingold and others.

Lansing, Michigan (LBWL) crowdsourced power outage map of 29 December 2013

The ice storm of late December 2013 hit the Lansing area hard,
and the municipal power authority has not handled the resulting
outages as well as citizens would have them do.

The Lansing, Michigan area has electrical service from LBWL,
the Lansing Board of Water and Light. Even though the surrounding
area is served by Consumers Energy, LBWL serves an area roughly
encompassing Lansing and East Lansing. For one thing,
LBWL does not maintain an outage map online, which is relatively
unusual in this day and age.

The map below is a crowd-sourced tracking of outages and
restorations in the Lansing area. It’s been put together
under the lead of @jsiarto (Jeff Siarto) with the help of
other Lansing area residents and with data pulled in part from
the LBWL Facebook page.


Sources to look for more information –

I wrote up the ice storm of late December 2013 with some maps of the
other damage to the area.

The Lansing Board of Water and Light is a municipally owned public utility,
governed by a Board of Commissioners. The board is made up of eight
Lansing residents, each appointed for a four-year term on the board
by the Mayor and confirmed by City Council.

The Lansing Area Power Outages map is a Google map, and this image
is just a snapshot of it.

News coverage –

WILX-TV – East Lansing Resident Creates Public BWL Outage Map

Unlike Consumers Energy and DTE, Lansing Board of Water and Light doesn’t have a real time outage map for customers, but it’s something the company is currently developing, according to company spokesperson Steve Serkaian.

“We’re working on a “smart grid” system that’s similar to what other utilities offer, but it’s something that costs a significant amount of money to implement,” he said. “But we have heard our customers loud and clear and we’re committed to working on communicating with them better.”

Lansing State Journal – Board of Water and Light: ‘We have heard loud and clear’; BWL promises to review its handling of the ice storm cleanup

(BWL General Manager J. Peter Lark) said BWL is running at “optimum” staffing levels. On Friday, he said, 30 crews were on the ground, a figure that includes 12 line crews and five tree-trimming crews. Crews are made up of two or three people, with most line crews using three.
The utility to date has brought in outside help from five other municipally owned utilities, but Lark said Friday he doesn’t plan to bring in more — at least one BWL employee would have to ride with the outside crew, and that would reduce the number of BWL crews in operation.

Michigan Radio – Most power restored in Michigan, LBWL still has work to do

Most of those still without power are customers of Lansing’s public utility. Angry customers showed up at a company press conference yesterday to complain about the slow repairs. The number of Lansing Board of Water and Light customers without power actually increased yesterday as melting ice from tree limbs damaged more power lines.

Lansing Online News – 5 lingering questions about the Lansing ice storm – yours?

The press conference confirmed communication failures on the part of the officials involved. But when will that get better? Why not now? When will the outages be over? When will the community return to normal? When will the powers-that-be get their act together so people can make wise choices? Temperatures are expected to plunge into single digits tonight. What should people whose power is out do now? Move their families, especially the elderly and infirm, to other locations? Can people with pets still take them to the Ingham County Animal Shelter? When will those who should have the answers start communicating effectively?

Lentil, feta, and olive pasta salad

This delicious lentil, feta, and olive pasta salad is adapted from the cookbook The Best 125 Meatless Pasta Dishes by Mindy Toomay and Susann Geiskopf-Hadler, published by Prima Publishing in 1992.

Add 3 cups of water to 1.5 cups of lentils in a saucepan on the stove. Add 2 bay leaves. Bring to a boil and then cook 25-35 minutes until the lentils are done. Rinse under cold water and drain. Note: you’ll want lentils that hold their shape in cooking; look for French lentils or lentils du Puy in the bulk section of your favorite grocer.

While the lentils are cooking, chop vegetables. Note that all vegetables are to be chopped small, so that they are not that much bigger than the lentils. For the vegetables:

  • one bell pepper, green or red
  • 1/3 cup sun dried tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup Kalamata olives, pitted of course

While the lentils are cooking, wash a bunch of parsley, and run it through the food processor until it is chopped very fine.

While the lentils are cooking, make a salad dressing, which is a nice garlicky vinaigrette.

  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1/3 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 2 medium cloves garlic, or more to taste, minced fine
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Near the end of the lentil cooking time, put on pasta to cook.

Just before serving, dice or crumble some feta and put it into a separate bowl, in the case that you have dinner guests who don’t care for feta.

Get a large bowl, and mix the lentils, vegetables, parsley, and dressing together in it.

Very delicious. Serve at room temperature.

Prep time – 45 to 60 minutes.

MuckRock News interview: “Sometimes the documents aren’t the most important outcome”

MuckRock’s George Levine did an interview with me for MuckRock News. Here’s the start:

In this week’s Requester’s Voice MuckRock goes hyperlocal with Ann Arbor’s Edward Vielmetti. From parking garages to sidewalks, Vielmetti is plugged in to the home of the Wolverines. He shows us how working with public documents should extend beyond federal fiddlings and can really have an impact on a local community. Formerly of, Vielmetti currently writes a weekly FOIA post for Damn Arbor. He is also working on a FOIA book The No-Nonsense Guide to the Michigan Freedom of Information Act.

You can see more at MuckRock: Requester’s Voice: Edward Vielmetti uses public records to spark local government ‘soul searching’.

Revisiting Walker Tracker

In among the pile of random things that you find when you have a teenager in the house, I located on old Omron pedometer whose battery had run down. One quick trip to CVS later, and I have a working tool to measure my physical activity.

In the winter months it’s harder for me to get the outdoor exercise that I think I need. The days are shorter, the sidewalks are slipperier, and the excuses are more numerous to stay indoors where it’s warm. That all said, there’s no less need to be mindful of how much exercise you are getting when it’s cold out.

In days past, I was able to predict my mood rather accurately by checking how many steps I got on my pedometer. If the number was below 5000 you could count on me to be grouchy, and those rare days when the count exceeded 20000 were days when I couldn’t concentrate on much of anything except moving. There’s a seasonally adjusted optimum of approximately 10000 steps – minus a few in winter, plus a few in summer – that I think of as a target that if I happen to move that much in a day that everything else works out OK.

I’ve used Walker Tracker on and off since 2006, or so the stats tell me, and in that time I’ve logged over 7 million steps. Though the site interface has changed a little bit and my old crowd of fellow pedestrians has mostly moved on from the site, there are still a few familiar faces of people more industrious than I am in logging their activity. I’m looking forward to revisiting it and being a bit more diligent about getting out and about in the winter time.

Note to self: buy new mittens, ideally ones that let me have at least one index finger free to work my phone.

Note to self 2: the battery is said to last 6 months, whether you use the system or not, so be prepared to change it on the summer solstice.