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Lawmakers seek greater rail-safety transparency

The impact and explosion of a derailed train packed with crude oil was so loud that some residents of Lac-Megantic, a small town in Quebec, first thought they’d heard an earthquake. The resulting blaze lasted for more than a day. At its peak, it registered as a ball of light by a NASA satellite that normally depicted the town as a tiny dot.

By the time the blaze was contained, 47 people were dead and much of downtown Lac-Megantic was in ruins in the worst North American cargo train disaster this century. A group of concerned Minnesota lawmakers and a newly formed citizen advocacy group would like to keep it that way.

The train that crashed in Lac-Megantic had been transporting Bakken field oil from North Dakota, and six or more such trains cross Minnesota each day. Some 326,000 Minnesotans live within the half-mile “evacuation zone” next to those lines.

Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, lead author of a 2014 rail-safety bill passed soon after the Lac-Megantic crash, served as ringleader for a Tuesday morning press conference to commemorate the second anniversary of that accident. Hornstein was joined by other legislators, all of them Democrats, who live in districts where residential neighborhoods are close to high-traffic railroad lines.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, chair of the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee, said some of his constituents live “within just a few feet” of a rail line that regularly transports ethanol.

“We need transparency, we need operational coordination,” Dibble said. He added: “And then we need the railroads to also provide some leadership — rather than taking a posture of negotiation and resistance at the Legislature — when we’re talking about finding the resources to address congestion, to address the [railroad] crossings, to address these points of conflict that we have.”

Last session, Gov. Mark Dayton said the state would need $330 million to cover the cost of improved railroad crossings Dayton sought over the coming decade. Senate Democrats pushed for a property tax change that would have captured currently exempt land owned by railroads, though companies said that would have violated existing federal law.

In the House, Hornstein and other Democrats called for an annual “assessment” of railroad companies totaling $32.5 million in revenue, but were rebuffed by the Republican majority.

“The railroads lobbied very heavily against that,” Hornstein said, adding that a floor amendment to address rail grade crossings “failed on a partisan vote.”

Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, interviewed not long after the DFL-led press conference, said it’s inaccurate to imply that Republicans are somehow less concerned about train safety than Democrats. Kelly pointed out that House Republicans agreed to “double the amount” spent on railroad security and response from what Democrats had done in 2014, including the addition of two first responder teams to handle emergencies.

As for the governor’s concern about rail grade crossings, Kelly questioned the need to spend that money, noting that none of the recent train accidents in the United States had happened at crossing sites.

“If we spent $325 million and did every rail crossing on that list, the data would suggest we didn’t stop anything — we didn’t stop the next derailment,” Kelly said. “With limited resources, we need to make sure we’re doing things that actually will improve the safety conditions.

Kelly added that lawmakers and the state should seek to work in partnership with railroad companies, “as opposed to villainizing them.” To that end, Hornstein and several other speakers on Tuesday said they appreciated recent moments of cooperation from railroad corporations, but still wanted to see more.

The 2014 law increased the number of full-time state train inspectors from just one to four, and increased disclosure requirements for railroad companies on their disaster preparedness plans. Railroads faced a mandatory deadline to update their plans last week, but a federal statute outlining the handling of railroad information means the documents are in a curious, semi-public position.

The plans can be reviewed in a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) office in St. Paul, where three of the companies have submitted documents; other companies’ records could be found only in the Detroit Lakes or Rochester field offices of MPCA. The records cannot be copied, made available online or distributed by email.

Hornstein said Tuesday that company representatives had agreed to share their existing disaster response documents with members of the House Transportation Committee earlier this year.

“One hundred sixty-six days later, we’re still waiting,” Hornstein said.

Judson Freed, director of emergency management for Ramsey County, said the existence of those response documents is a positive step, but he cited an industry maxim that states, “Plans are nothing, planning is everything.” Without better access to the information, it’s difficult for state and local officials to anticipate the right action in the event of a derailment.

“We know that the railroads have done certain planning, but the impacts and responses are different in high-density, urban areas than they might be in Greater Minnesota,” he said. “I need to know what they’re planning to do … and also make sure what I’m planning doesn’t get in their way. We don’t want to be at cross-purposes, ever.”


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