Congressional Hearings on Freight Rail Safety Scheduled

Several incidents involving trains hauling crude oil have prompted federal lawmakers to raise concerns about railroad safety.
(Published Feb 18, 2014)

A series of incidents related to trains carrying oil produced in North Dakota has prompted U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, both democrats from Minnesota, to raise concerns about railroad safety. Both lawmakers announced that hearings on the matter have been scheduled in their respective bodies.

In a letter, Sen. Klobuchar urged the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation to hold oversight hearings on the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The first in what is expected to be a series of Senate hearings occurred on Feb. 13.

Rep. Walz, a member of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials, announced that the Subcommittee will hold a hearing to review rail safety standards on Feb. 26 at 2 p.m. ET. Rep. Walz joined several of his colleagues in sending a letter to Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Denham (R-CA) to request the Subcommittee hold such a hearing in order to evaluate safety standards, particularly for the transport of hazardous materials.

The incidents are related to trains hauling crude oil from western North Dakota. On Dec. 30, one of these trains derailed from a BNSF Railway track near Casselton, N.D. The resulting fire led to an evacuation of residents and a need for contamination mitigation. In July, a runaway oil train derailed and exploded in the center of the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people. On Feb. 3, a Canadian Pacific train leaked about 12,000 gallons of crude oil from Red Wing, Minn., to south of Winona, Minn., about 70 miles.

Although state and local authority to regulate railroads is extremely limited, state leaders are very concerned about the risks associated with the crude oil trains passing through Minnesota. Gov. Dayton has begun the process of investigating whether the state needs to be more active in issues involving railroad safety.

On Feb. 12, House Transportation Finance Committee Chair Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Minneapolis) and Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee Chair Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis) announced plans to introduce a bill that focuses on generating funds to help train for and respond to potential incidents. The legislation would impose a fee of one-one-hundredth of one cent per gallon of crude oil transported across Minnesota by rail or pipeline. A tanker car holds approximately 26,000 gallons of oil, meaning the cost would be $2.60 per tanker. There were no estimates available on what kind of revenue the proposal could generate.

The League will be closely monitoring state and federal developments on rail safety issues, and will be working to determine what kind of resources would be most helpful to cities.

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