Freight Rail Safety Discussed at League and State Capitol

A bill was introduced that would require the Department of Public Safety to carry out preparedness activities related to railroad and pipeline spills and discharge.
(Published Mar 24, 2014)

Concerns over the safety of freight trains transporting crude oil and other hazardous materials prompted legislative action at the Capitol and a forum between city officials and First Congressional District Rep. Tim Walz (DFL-Minnesota) at the League of Minnesota Cities.

Incidents related to trains hauling crude oil from western North Dakota underscore a need for preparedness in communities along freight rail routes. 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 in Minnesota, a Canadian Pacific train leaked about 12,000 gallons of crude oil from Red Wing to south of Winona 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.

Legislation advances
On March 19, the House Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee heard and passed a bill authored by Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Minneapolis). The bill, HF 3134, would require the Department of Public Safety (DPS) to carry out preparedness activities related to railroad and pipeline spills and discharge. The bill’s companion, SF 2796, sponsored by Sen. Vicki Jensen (DFL-Owatonna), awaits action by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

According to the bill, DPS mandates would include:

  • Assisting local emergency managers and fire officials to understand general strategies for hazard identification and initial isolation to ensure public safety.
  • Assisting railroads and local pipeline companies to develop suggested protocols and practices for first responders.
  • Facilitating cooperation between the railroads, pipeline companies, and public safety organizations.
  • Participating in training sessions.
  • Helping local governments incorporate railroad and pipeline hazard and response information into local emergency operation plans.

The bill also requires DPS to provide a report to the Legislature by Jan. 15, 2015, that summarizes the preparedness and emergency response in the state and provides a cost estimate for needs of first responders that would answer the call when a spill or discharge occurs. A $2.5 million state general fund appropriation is provided in the bill, with a matching amount to be assessed to the private entities transporting the materials. The DPS would establish a hazardous incident response preparedness grant program that could be used for training costs, equipment related to hazardous materials readiness, or emergency preparedness planning and coordination.

Congressman Walz visits League
Also on March 19, Congressman Walz facilitated a meeting with a group of city officials to better understand their concerns and preparedness levels. Held at the League, the meeting covered a range of topics including rail car standards, response training and equipment needs, and responsibilities assigned to the railroad industry versus public safety officials.

Congressman Walz intends to lead on this issue at the federal level, where many laws pertaining to railroads are made. He has met with Cynthia Quarterman, administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). He announced that Quarterman plans to visit Minnesota in the coming months.

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