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Lawmaker seeks railroad oil safety

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ST. PAUL -- Western North Dakota’s oil boom puts Minnesota in a dangerous position, a key Minnesota lawmaker says, and the state should increase its rail oil safety oversight.

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Most of the highly volatile oil moves from the Bakken oilfields through Minnesota.

“We are at the geographic epicenter of this,” said Chairman Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, of the House Transportation Finance Committee.

Dave Christianson of the Minnesota Department of Transportation told Hornstein’s committee Wednesday that nine or 10 trains a day haul crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken oilfields. Seven or eight trains of those trains go through Minnesota, most through the heart of the Twin Cities.

“That places us right on the route for problems,” Christianson said.

In the second of two meeting on the oil situation, nearly everyone talked about crude oil disasters that occurred in 2013 Quebec and North Dakota derailments.

Railroad officials say they are taking actions on their own to improve crude oil transportation safety. Hornstein said more state rail inspectors are needed and local emergency officials need the state’s financial help for training and equipment to deal with oil accidents.

After hearing from state regulators, union leaders and railroad executives Wednesday, Hornstein said that he plans to release a bill next week to improve Minnesota’s ability to prepare for and fight oil disasters. However, he said, no decision has been made about how to fund those actions.

Gov. Mark Dayton is expected to release a plan today to make some budget changes and he could include funding for oil disasters from a budget surplus. Hornstein originally wanted to tax oil shipments through Minnesota to get the funds, but House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said he opposes the tax.

“It seems to me there is a significant need for legislation,” Hornstein said.

With Bakken constantly expanding its output, on its way to 1 million barrels a day, Minnesota needs to prepare, the chairman said.

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, wondered how good Minnesota railroad tracks are.

Christianson said they are better than ever, but highly volatile Bakken crude oil changes things.

“We cannot afford to have a single incident ...” Christianson said. “This is a different game that we are playing and the stakes are higher.”

It may be an inconvenience if a railcar of corn spills, but an explosion or spill of an oil car’s contents could be disastrous, he said.

David Brown of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers told the committee that greed by railroads and other businesses involved in the oil industry endangers the public and railroad employees because they do not spend enough on safety.

Railroad officials said they have a good safety record and work to improve it.

Vice President Brian Sweeney of BNSF Railway Co. said his railroad is spending more money on better equipment and tracks than it is paying out in profits.

He said testing cars are used to check track three or four times a year, with more tests where oil trains travel. He also said track sensors every 30 to 40 miles can detect problems early.

After a deadly oil train derailment in Quebec last year, the railroad industry began to take actions on its own to increase safety, Sweeney said. Among those actions was to lower train speeds, down to 40 miles an hour in some urban areas.

At the same time, new tank cars are being built to higher standards.

BNSF is in the process of buying 5,000 newly designed and safer tank cars, Sweeney said. Most railroads do not own tank cars.

Sweeney said that BNSF trained 830 Minnesota emergency responders in the last five years. The railroad also has emergency responders on it staff as well as equipment such as some that dispenses foam to douse fires.

While railroad officials said they do their own extensive rail inspections, three federal inspectors cover all of Minnesota and western Wisconsin. One state rail inspector is on staff.

“Without a doubt, we need more (rail) inspectors,” Hornstein said.

Bill Gandner of MnDOT said 1,138 track safety defects were found last year, with 141 of them considered serious.

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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