By Danielle Killey
Local emergency responders say they want the state’s help handling safety concerns as crude oil travels on railroads, highways and pipelines through their communities, but the Legislature has little time to act on the issue this year and many questions to answer.
The Minnesota Legislature’s 2014 session begins Tuesday, and committees must initially pass bills less than a month after they convene. On Wednesday, legislative leaders could not give any specifics about what the state can do to help.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said lawmakers need more information about local entities’ response capabilities and necessities before determining the next steps.
“We need to inventory what’s out there,” he said during a 90-minute Forum News Service-sponsored meeting in which legislative leaders briefed reporters from around the state about issues expected to arise during the session.
Goodhue County Sheriff Scott McNurlin said local agencies are doing that research as well and are in the initial stages of looking into what kind of specialized plans and equipment would be needed in an emergency situation, such as a December train derailment and fire in Casselton, N.D.
“It’s just one of those new challenges that, quite honestly, a year or two ago we didn’t face,” the sheriff said.
The state has a limited capacity for managing rail safety, lawmakers said.
“A lot of the regulation of the railroads, in particular, are at the federal level,” House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, said. “But it still seems to me that a place the state can step in is making sure we are prepared to respond adequately if an unfortunate event … were to happen.”
“We need to make sure that our emergency responders are ready to respond,” House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said.
The issue was one of many discussed in the Forum News Service briefing. Gov. Mark Dayton did not attend because of hip surgery last week. He turned down an invitation to call in to the briefing.
Democratic leaders said they think lawmakers will vote to increase the minimum wage this session.
Leaders also discussed plans for a public works borrowing bill, citing infrastructure as a key need, as well as the possibility of repealing business-to-business taxes passed last year.
A proposal from Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, and Sen. Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, presented last week would establish a 0.01 cent per gallon tax on all crude oil transported in Minnesota to help fund improved safety. The money would be used to help local agencies fund equipment and training to respond to situations such as oil spills.
“There’s going to have to be some kind of funding stream” to help cover planning, training and any needed specialized equipment, McNurlin said, but the question remains whether that should come from the oil, rail and pipeline companies; or state, federal government and local governments.
“These are all questions that need to be answered,” he said. “This is all relatively new to us.”
Legislative leaders weren’t sold on the tax, though some said funds for state support could come from other places, such as a budget surplus.
Rail cars have been transporting hazardous materials for years, but concerns have increased after recent incidents, including the North Dakota derailment and a Canadian Pacific train leaking a trail of about 12,000 gallons of crude oil earlier this month between Red Wing and Winona.
“The public safety folks in a small community or a large community aren’t necessarily equipped to address that,” Thissen said.
McNurlin said local leaders want the state to help them navigate the situation and deal with federal regulations.
“It’s going to take several layers of bureaucracy and government getting on the same page,” he said.