MN: Officials tell Dayton More Training, Funding Needed for Rail Safety

Aug. 19--RED WING -- Small communities along the Mississippi River are ill-equipped to deal with an oil train disaster and the state needs to do more to help, local leaders told Gov. Mark Dayton during a rail safety roundtable in Red Wing Tuesday.

"It's a big concern for us that we've got this many trains coming through. Any kind of accident or derailment would be a major disaster in the city of Red Wing," said Red Wing Mayor Dan Bender.

Dayton led the discussion at the Red Wing Public Library before a crowd of more than 50 residents. It's the fourth in a series of statewide meetings on the issue and included elected officials and law enforcement officers from Goodhue and Wabasha counties. Also there were three state commissioners representing the departments of transportation, public safety and the pollution control agency.

The focus on rail safety comes as the number of trains carrying highly volatile crude oil from the Bakken region in North Dakota has steadily increased. Recent oil-tanker train explosions in Casselton, North Dakota and Quebec have amplified concerns about the public safety risks these trains pose.Every day, two trains carrying Bakken crude oil travel through Red Wing and another five or six oil trains per day travel on the Wisconsin side of the river, according to Dave Christianson with the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

The governor recently signed into law new legislation aimed at improving rail safety. It included hiring three new state rail inspectors, requiring railroads to provide emergency response training every three to five years to fire departments along the train tracks and allocating $2 million for new rail grade crossings along oil routes. Local leaders told the governor that while those are good first steps, more needs to be done.

Wabasha Police Chief Jim Warren said no one contacted his department to notify them a few months ago about a Canadian Pacific train spilling diesel fuel. The spill happened on a Saturday night and Warren didn't hear about until Monday.

"I then called up CP Rail and asked about the spill and they couldn't confirm or deny if they'd had one," Warren said.

He finally got some answers from state officials but said, "I just think the communication is very poor."

Another problem for Wabasha is it gets its water from two wells that are within 50 to 100 yards of the railroad tracks, said Wabasha City Administrator Chad Springer. The city is having one of its wells tested to make sure it was not impacted by the spill. Given the potential threat to its water supply, the city is now considering drilling a new well further away from the railroad. That's expected to cost $600,000 to $700,000. The city is also grappling with a sharp increase in the number of large trucks from Wisconsin loading material into rail cars. Those trucks are doing extensive damage to local roads that were not built to handle that kind of truck traffic.

"The city of Wabasha is seeing it from both ends. We're seeing the trucks increase as well as the rail increase," Springer said.

During the meeting, several law enforcement officers said they have not received adequate training to respond to an oil train disaster and are lacking the necessary equipment. Red Wing Fire Chief Tom Schneider suggested the state consider requiring railroads to have emergency resources available along the railroad lines every certain number of miles. He also suggested creating a regional strike team that would specialize in responding to an oil tanker explosion. He also questioned whether something could be done to require volatile material be removed from the Bakken crude before it is shipped on rail cars into the state.

Lake City council member Andru Peters told the governor "we've got a funding issue" when it comes to upgrading railroad crossings. He said there are 58 at-grade crossings in Goodhue County alone.

Christianson told the crowd that the $2 million allocated under the new legislation will allow for eight new rail grade crossings. The bad news is there are 500 grade crossings along oil routes. He added that while the federal government is considering a new rule that requires oil companies to begin using new, safer rail cars to transport Bakken crude, it will take three years, once the new law is effective, for all the old oil cars to be replaced.

"It's a real slip on the part of the federal government that they waited so long to take action," he said.

Another major concern among those gathered at Tuesday's meeting was the impact the increased oil train traffic is having on passenger rail. Bender said Amtrak trains traveling through Red Wing appear to be running more and more behind schedule. Christianson verified Bender's assessment, saying Amtrak trains have gone from being 80 percent on time to 15 percent on time this year.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Dayton said the next step is to take the input gathered at these meetings and work to address some of the problems with the railroad companies. He also vowed that if re-elected this fall, he would aggressively push to make sure railroad companies help cover the costs caused by their growing oil train business.

"I would insist that the industry bear the financial costs for these problems they are causing for local communities, for the state," Dayton said.

He did not offer any specifics as to how to do that, but said it would have to be worked out with lawmakers and would likely be "contentious."

During the meeting Christianson warned the crowd that the Bakken oil field is expected to double in size within the next five years, meaning these challenges won't be going away anytime soon. The governor said any solution will likely require a mix of rail and new pipelines to handle the oil field's massive growth.

Goodhue County Commissioner Ted Seifert urged state officials to get to work planning ahead for the growth as soon as possible, especially considering it takes three to five years to build a new pipeline.

"Seeing that tsunami coming, we need to make some decisions now," Seifert said. "They may be hard choices, but we need to make them."

Copyright 2014 - Post-Bulletin, Rochester, Minn.