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Derailment focuses attention on lack of Minnesota rail deal

Smoke from the wreckage of several oil tanker cars that derailed in a field near the town of Heimdal, N.D., on Wednesday, May 6, 2015. A train carrying crude oil detailed and caught fire early Wednesday morning, officials said, just days after the U.S. government announced sweeping reforms to improve safety of the volatile shipments. Andrew Cullen / Forum News Service

—A North Dakota oil train derailment reinforces the fact that Minnesota legislators have a week and a half left in their 2015 session but have not settled on what they would do to improve rail safety.

"It accentuates why we have to do this," House Transportation Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said of Wednesday's derailment.

Kelly and fellow Republicans have no specific oil rail safety plan although the chairman said one will be in place by the May 18 legislative adjournment.

Photo gallery: Train derails, tanker cars burn near ND town

Kelly said that by deadline he expects railroads to step up with plans to improve safety, and the final solution could involve railroads paying part of the bill.

Democrats, on the other hand, demand railroads pay $33 million a year higher assessments and new property taxes to fund safety programs.

"How many more derailments, fires and explosions are we going to have before we take this problem more seriously?" Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, asked. "So now we have another incident in North Dakota: Bakken oil, Burlington Northern line, likely headed to Minnesota."

Up to seven oil trains a day originating in western North Dakota's Bakken oil region pass through Minnesota, but no derailments have occurred. Since the first of the year, Hornstein said, seven Bakken oil trains have derailed elsewhere in the United States and Canada.

"We have exposure all across Minnesota," Gov. Mark Dayton said. "If it would have happened in Willmar, something like that would be catastrophic."

Senate Transportation Chairman Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, has said it is just luck that has prevented a Minnesota derailment.

Most oil trains enter Minnesota through Moorhead, then head to the southeast and pass through the heavily populated Twin Cities before turning south along the Mississippi River.

Other trains go through Willmar, then out the southwestern corner of the state.

Kelly said that public safety workers' response to the Heimdal, N.D., derailment was going well. "The town was evacuated. The cars were decoupled."

Since the derailment was not at a road crossing, Kelly said that Hornstein, Dayton and other Democrats' frequent discussion of road crossing safety does not apply to the Heimdal situation. Still, he said, traffic congestion caused by oil trains is important and he pledged to deal with it.

The chairman was not clear about how he would prevent derailments.

"I still believe the railroads are the best source to determine" what needs to happen, Kelly said, and legislators "do not have that expertise."

"We will end up with something this year" to improve rail safety, Kelly promised, with railroad cooperation.

Dayton's and Dibble's plans, which are similar, would require higher railroad assessments. Kelly said he thinks railroads "will join us in some fashion on that." Just ordering railroads to pay the state more will not solve the problem, he added.

Kelly said that lawmakers this year could end up with little more than a study about how to prevent derailments. However, Republicans and Democrats alike back more oil disaster quick response units located in areas where they can respond quickly to incidents.

"We will see if the Legislature will side with the people of Minnesota or side with rail interests," Dayton said. "It would not be difficult for me to make that decision."

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, pushed a different solution: "The best option is to get these pipelines open. That will get 80 percent of the oil off the rails."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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