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Minnesota planning ‘Bakken awareness 101’

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LITTLE CANADA — Minnesota emergency services personnel will be trained and equipped in a few years to deal with oil train disasters, but the governor worries about what could happen before then.

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“If the accident would just wait for two years, three years, four years, boy, would we be ready,” Gov. Mark Dayton said Monday at the first of a series of rail safety roundtables.

Dayton’s public safety commissioner, Ramona Dohman, told the governor that every city and county must have plans for dealing with disasters, but not specifically how to handle volatile North Dakota crude oil that fills about 50 trains that cross Minnesota each week.

“We are the cross-country freeway for this because it is going to the East Coast,” said Dave Christianson of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Local government plans are “one size fits all...” Dohman said. “They cover whatever may happen in your community.”

“It is just that they have not responded to these spills and fires...” the commissioner said. “How do you respond to the Casselton fire?”

Dohman and others from the public safety community said they are concerned about how Minnesota would deal with an oil train fire like in Casselton, N.D., late last year. Or an accident that killed people in Quebec. Or a fire in West Virginia. Or any of a number of other incidents involving crude oil pumped from the Bakken oil field in western North Dakota. Most of that oil is transported across Minnesota.

Doug Bergland, the Washington County emergency management director, said many firefighters already have 40-hour classes dealing with hazardous material response, but nothing specific about the crude oil that often moves in 100-car unit trains. He said he does not think that most law enforcement officers have any significant training on that issue.

“We are in uncharted territory here,” said state Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, a sponsor of legislation that passed earlier this year to help fund training for first responders.

Christianson said that problems exist on several levels, including lack of training, lack of proper equipment and aging 1960s-era rail cars. “You have gaps layered upon gaps, layered upon gaps for the next three years. ... In the meantime, we have real risks for communities.”

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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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