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NTSB member Robert Sumwalt, right, viewing damaged rail cars at the scene of the BNSF train accident in Casselton, N.D. in December.
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WASHINGTON — Since a 400,000-gallon oil spill just 20 miles west of the North Dakota-Minnesota border in December, lawmakers have waited for their opportunity to examine rail shipping safety standards and procedures.

Members of a house panel, spurred on by U.S. Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), got their first chance on Monday, hearing from regulators and the rail industry about what can be done to better prepare for rail disasters.

Walz had called for the hearing in the wake of the Dec. 30 Casselton, N.D., derailment, and held a roundtable of his own to assess Minnesota’s oil-by-rail preparedness on Monday. The consensus from Minnesota officials: More could be done to make increasingly busy rail lines safer in the era of the North Dakota oil boom.

“It’s just the fact that the economy has changed enough that we’re shipping more flammable things, specifically oil, by rail, so we think we need to update things,” Walz said.

Oil production in the upper Midwest has dramatically increased over the past 10 years. North Dakota’s Bakken oilfields produce more than 900,000 barrels of crude oil a day, and the state is now the second-biggest oil producer in the country. U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said Wednesday it’s raised logistical challenges, “challenges I don’t think we could have imagined five short years ago,” when the state was producing less than 200,000 barrels a day.

Today, about 70 percent of Bakken crude is transported by rail, or about nine, 100-plus-car trains every day, up to eight of which pass through Minnesota en route to refineries in the Gulf or on the East Coast, according to Minnesota Department of Transportation state rail plan manager Dave Christianson.

Minnesota eighth in rail traffic

Minnesota has the eighth most rail traffic in the United States, much of which just passes through en route to Chicago to points East from the West Coast, or vice versa, Christianson said. 

There are more than 4,600 miles of freight railroads in Minnesota, nearly half of which are controlled by two rail companies: Canada Pacific and BNSF, the company that operated the train that derailed after a collision in Casselton on Dec. 30, catching fire, spilling 400,000 gallons of oil, and forcing 2,300 Casselton residents from their homes.

Marvin foncé Marron amp;co Suttino amp;co Marvin There have been more than 350 rail accidents in Minnesota reported to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) since 1971. Half a dozen have ended in crude oil spills like in Casselton, though certainly none to that level. The worst was last March, when a Soo Line tanker car derailed in Parkers Prairie, spilling more than 10,000 gallons.

But that’s not an exhaustive list of oil spills. Earlier this month, a train traveling between Red Wing and Winona leaked 12,000 gallons along its route.

Only one state inspector for rail lines

Christianson said the increase in oil trains has forced railroads to partner with state and local governments to establish emergency procedures for spills or derailments.

Generally, local emergency crews are first to respond, and they call in the railroads to assist. Railroad teams — and special equipment such as flame-fighting foam — are located about 300 miles apart, but they’re working to train local first responders on how best to manage incidents until they arrive. It’s been a long process, and Christianson said there still are some fire and police crews yet to be properly trained.

Marvin amp;co Marvin Suttino foncé Marron amp;co When it comes to preventing spills, railroads still take the lead. MnDOT has only one track inspector in the entire state; the Federal Railroad Administration assigns one or two federal track inspectors to Minnesota, and has a team of only 10 hazmat inspectors to cover the entire Midwest. Most of the time, railroads handle the inspections themselves and report their findings to the government.

“[Agencies have] been throwing as many resources at this as they can,” Christianson said. “It’s a case of taking existing resources and diverting some of that, as much as possible, to this.”

Two types of response

Should a major spill occur, Minnesota officials say there are essentially two components to the state’s response: Preserving public safety and protecting the environment.

On the public safety side, there’s broad recognition that there is very little first responders can do in the event of a derailment as severe as Casselton.

“They’re well prepared to deal with something that can be dealt with,” Walz said. “A Casselton cannot be dealt with. There isn’t enough money or resources in the state of Minnesota, let alone the city of Winona, to be able to do that.”

Minnesota hasn’t suffered any cataclysmic incidents comparable to Casselton or Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where 47 people were killed in a derailment fire in the middle of the city last July. If one were to happen, Bloomington Fire Department Chief Ulie Seal said first-responder reaction would depend on where a derailment or accident happens.

“If the accident happened like it did up in [Canada], nobody is prepared. Nobody can respond to that effectively,” he said. As for Casselton, “I thought that went fairly well. They had the accident, they evacuated the town, they didn’t have any fatalities, but that was out in the tundra, so to speak.”

In the event of a derailment, Seal said first responders would first identify the chemical they’re dealing with before moving in to evacuate those close by. If it’s an oil train, they would spray water on the tankers to keep them cool and try preventing explosions.

Seal said rail companies have done a good job working with first responders to train them on how to deal with spills and crashes. He said oil-by-rail transport would be safer if trains with dangerous chemicals could bypass major metropolitan areas, but that’s where the market demand is. The closer an incident is to the Twin Cities metro, the more difficult it would be to respond. Take, for example, a town like Shakopee, a relatively small city but one in which the train tracks run right through a downtown with hard-to-evacuate buildings such as a hospital.

“You just aren’t going to move everybody out of that town effectively,” he said. “We get in there, we try to get water on those tanks as quickly as we can.”

Working with Wisconsin

From an environmental standpoint, Pollution Control Agency emergency responder David Morrison said responders generally have more than two weeks to keep leaked petroleum from damaging the environment.

Pollution Control officials have been called to a handful of clean-up sites, but not every rail accident needs their attention, especially those involving goods or non-hazardous commodities.

When there is a spill, “our clean-up goal is to … not to let it infiltrate, to get at it quickly and recover it before it gets a chance to embed itself into the environment,” Morrison said.

Marvin Marron Suttino foncé amp;co Marvin amp;co Morrison said many rail lines travel through “environmentally sensitive” areas of both Minnesota and Wisconsin. Officials in both states are teaming up to simulate a spill response in a National Wildlife Refuge area in mid-April.

What should be done?

Rail companies announced a series of internal changes last week meant to address safety concerns, including increased inspections and slower speeds while traveling through cities. And on Tuesday, the Department of Transportation said companies need to test North Dakota oil for overly dangerous volatility before shipping.

Many rail companies, including BNSF, are working to switch over to safer tanker cars, though at Wednesday’s hearing, PHMSA administrator Cynthia Quarterman said that wasn’t a “silver bullet” meant to mitigate all safety problems. At the hearing, lawmakers pressed administrators to release new guidelines for tanker cars, something officials said are still at least a year away.

Minnesota safety advocates were hesitant to suggest too many new government safety regulations. Christianson, who is testifying at the State Capitol on rail safety Thursday, said officials are working to put together a formal request for more rail inspection and safety resources, but his main focus right now is educating lawmakers on the issue.

Walz said that he hasn’t come up with a particular legislative fix yet, either, and that one might not be necessary if the industry and regulators can come to some type of accord. It’s not an “us versus them” scenario, he said; everyone acknowledges that safety comes first.

“Regulations need to be just enough — not too much, not too little — just enough to do what they have to do,” he said. “I think the case here is the entire industry and citizens are maybe catching up with how fast the industry moved.”

Devin Henry can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry

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  • Comments (1)

    1. Submitted by David Frenkel on 02/27/2014 - 10:58 am.

      This isn’t new

      The boom in the Bakken oil fields has been going on for a few years now but hasn’t hit the front pages until there was a recent accident. Legislators have been too concerned with social issues like gay rights and abortion and not concerned with public safety. They need to be educated on the issues before they run out and pass any legislation which may not make any sense or not do any good. MN needs to have more formal meetings with representatives from ND both in the oil industry and elected officials to form logical and consistent legislation. Will this happen? Probably not.

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