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Congress to investigate rail safety; city also talks trains

Congress to investigate rail safety

WASHINGTON —The U.S. House and Senate plan separate hearings on railroad safety after a series of derailments produced a flood of safety concerns.

A Senate committee plans a Thursday hearing, while one in the House will be Feb. 26.

Trains hauling crude oil from western North Dakota have been involved in a variety of incidents in recent months, most notably the Dec. 30 derailment and resulting fire along a BNSF Railway track near Casselton, N.D. In July, a runaway oil train derailed and exploded in the center of the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people.

Last week, a Canadian Pacific train leaked about 12,000 gallons of crude oil from Red Wing to south of Winona, Minn., about 70 miles.

The series of incidents, and increased North Dakota oil production, produced cries for congressional action, including from U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, both D-Minn.

“The recent derailments in North Dakota and Canada underscore the need to find commonsense ways to strengthen our rail infrastructure and protect communities near rail routes,” Klobuchar said. “This hearing will focus on ways to move forward solutions to improve rail safety and prevent future derailments.”

The Senate hearing is to focus on both passenger and freight rail safety.

Klobuchar had asked for “a comprehensive oversight hearing on the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration with a focus on the importance of freight rail safety.”

Walz said he requested a House hearing after learning of concerns from his southern Minnesota district.

“We must do everything we can to protect the communities that these hazardous materials are shipped through,” he said.

North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple has said he wants railcar safety standards improved quickly, not in 2015 as the federal Transportation Department seeks.

“We do need some kind of provisional standard for the next year,” Dalrymple said. Waiting until next year “just leaves a couple of industries guessing.”

Retrofitting existing cars takes time and could cost more than $1 billion, the rail industry has said.

About 71 percent of all oil produced in North Dakota was transported by rail in November, about 800,000 barrels per day.

Local officials in Minnesota say they cannot get answers about where crude oil is being transported through their areas. However, much of the North Dakota crude is destined for refineries east of Minnesota, so quite a bit apparently moves through the state.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has begun the process of investigating whether the state needs to be more active in issues involving railroad safety.

Reuters news service contributed to this story.

City Council also talks train safety

By Danielle Killey

Recent railroad emergencies prompted the Red Wing City Council to talk Monday about how the city is prepared to respond to such situations.

Council members also raised the possibility of holding a community meeting and getting more information out to the public, though no details were set.

Council members said they have heard concerns from the public on train safety after a series of recent events, including a derailment and fire near Casselton, N.D., in December, and an oil leak along the tracks from Red Wing to Winona this month.

Having a nuclear plant in the area has pushed fire, law enforcement and other responders to have plans and procedures in place for emergency situations, Emergency Management Director Roger Hand said.

Police Chief Roger Pohlman said officers are trained in strategies that can be flexible to fit the situation, and also have training in hazardous material response.

“We’re fortunate in this area that we have the level of training and the level of personnel that we do in both law enforcement and fire,” Hand said.

Plans developed for issues at the plant, along with other police officer and firefighter training, can be applied to many emergencies.

“We don’t have a specific ‘train derailment’ plan, but we do have an overall plan that we can wrap around any eventuality,” Hand said.

He said responders can and must be flexible depending on the emergency.

“Each event has to be taken on its merits, on what type of situation it is that we’re facing, and we have to respond to that,” he said.

Train safety

Much of the rail track in the Red Wing area runs through unpopulated areas, Hand said, but some of it goes through spots of town concentrated with businesses and people.

If an incident such as that in North Dakota happened in one of those areas of Red Wing, it would have serious impacts, including loss of life, Hand said. But there isn’t much the city can do to prevent it.

“Any incident that’s going to happen in our area is going to be a response incident,” Hand said. “Prevention’s going to have to be in the hands of the railroad staff and personnel in their normal, everyday maintenance of track and maintenance of the vehicles that they’re running on the track.”

Council member Mike Schultz said he would like the city to have more information about the train and track maintenance and other railroad activities in the area, and President Lisa Bayley agreed.

Public information

Council member Peggy Rehder suggested that there be a public meeting to address the train safety issue. She said it would be especially helpful for businesses in the area to get more information about what they would need to do in an emergency situation, such as responsibilities during an evacuation.

“It’d be nice to know that now when you’re calm and quiet, not when you’re racing to get out the door,” Bayley agreed.

Bayley also said she would like to see training for council members and staff, perhaps teaming up with the county, on communicating with the public during such incidents.

Danielle Killey

Danielle Killey covers local government for the South Washington County Bulletin. She has worked as a reporter for other Forum Communications newspapers since 2011. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities with a journalism degree.

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