By Edward McAllister and Catherine Ngai
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A BNSF Railway [BNISF.UL] train loaded with crude oil derailed and caught fire on Thursday afternoon in a rural area south of Galena, Illinois, according to local officials and the company.
The incident marks the latest in a series of derailments in North America and the third in three weeks involving trains hauling crude oil, which has put a heightened focus on rail safety.
Dark smoke was seen for miles around the crash site, and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency told local WREX.com that two of the cars were potentially on fire. Images posted online by Dubuque Scanner showed flames several hundred feet high, while aerial footage showed the wreck spread across two sets of track.
The train with 105 loaded cars - 103 of them carrying crude oil - derailed around 1:20 p.m. CST (1920 GMT), according to a BNSF statement. The incident occurred on what appears to be a major rail line alongside the Mississippi River that handles as many as 50 oil-trains a week, one official said.
"The sky is pretty dark down there, the smoke is pretty black," said Kevin Doyle, whose property borders the tracks. "If you're standing on the tracks you can throw a rock in the water."
BNSF said there were no reported injuries and no evacuations. The Berkshire Hathaway Inc unit did not know what had caused the derailment, which occurred about 3 miles outside Galena, a town of just over 3,000 on the border with Wisconsin.
Eight cars derailed, according to Galena City Administrator Mark Moran, six of which had tumbled onto their side. He said emergency responders were called back to Galena as a precaution, and BNSF responders had taken over control of the site. It was not clear if oil had spilled from the tank cars.
It was also not immediately clear where the train originated or where it was heading. Chicago, which is 160 miles east, is a major rail hub for shipments from both North Dakota and Canada's oil sands. It was unclear if the train's tank cars were older models widely criticized for being prone to puncture during accidents.
About 40 to 50 oil trains come through the area each week, Jo Daviess County Emergency Manager Charles Pedersen said. He had said earlier that there was no explosion or fire at the site.
The accident is just the latest involving oil trains in the United States and Canada.
In 2013, 47 people were killed in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic after a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded. The last incident was just three weeks ago.
Last month, a Canadian Pacific Railway freight train derailment in nearby Dubuque, Iowa, spilled ethanol fuel into the water and set three cars on fire. Dubuque, which is 14 miles to the north west of Galena, has almost 60,000 inhabitants.
A National Transportation Safety Board spokesman said the federal agency was not investigating the incident.
For a graphic go to: http://link.reuters.com/daf34w
(Reporting by Edward McAllister and Catherine Ngai; editing by Chris Reese, G Crosse, Christian Plumb and Diane Craft)