Minnesota Could Face Oil Transportation Disaster Loss ‘on Massive Scale’

Fire officials

By Don Davis

Public safety officials across Minnesota lose sleep at night over the possibility of major crude oil transportation disasters such as ones last year in North Dakota and Quebec.

That is what state Public Safety Commissioner Mona Doman told House Transportation Finance Committee members Thursday as they heard that firefighters and others first responders are not ready for such disasters.

Highly flammable crude oil from western North Dakota’s Bakken formation is being transported in nearly two-mile-long trains through Minnesota, the committee learned. Fire officials said they do not have the money needed to prepare for derailments, pipeline leaks and other disasters.

“This puts Minnesotans and first responders alike at great risk,” President Chris Parsons of the Minnesota Professional Firefighters said.

Firefighters “simply do not have” equipment and training needed to fight crude oil fires, Parsons added.

If an oil disaster occurs in Minnesota, Parsons said, it “quite is likely to result in loss of life and property loss on a massive scale.”

While North Dakota’s oil boom has resulted in most of the increase in oil train traffic, the less flammable Canadian tar sand oil also is flowing through Minnesota, but mostly in pipelines.

Brooklyn Park Fire Chief Ken Prillaman, representing fire department and chief organizations, warned committee members that they should not limit consideration to oil disasters. He said other dangerous substances such as anhydrous ammonia and ethanol are going through the state in increasing quantities.

Thursday’s committee hearing was the opening round of work this legislative session, which began Tuesday, in dealing with oil and other transportation hazards.

Committee Chairman Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, wants to tax oil rail shipments to pay for more equipment and training for first responders. Republicans, Gov. Mark Dayton and House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, say the new tax is not needed.

Hornstein said his committee will take up the transportation disaster issue again next week, hearing from the Minnesota Department of Transportation and railroad officials, and he hopes to have a bill ready about March 12. He would not say if a tax will continue to be part of his proposal.

Committee members learned that about 900,000 Minnesotans live near pipelines and 460,000 are close to railroad tracks carrying oil.

Most of Thursday’s discussion centered on railroad issues. About 10 trains, with at least 100 cars each, go through Minnesota a day, the Public Safety Department reported.

Lack of money is the main issue they face, fire officials said.

An oil disaster is “low frequency, high risk,” Savage Fire Chief Joel McColl said.

Preparing for such disasters is especially hard for volunteer fire departments that sometimes only have a few firefighters on duty during the day. Fire officials said that in such cases about all they can do is evacuate anyone who might be in danger and wait for help from nearby communities and the state.

The state has teams ready to respond quickly to help evaluate the situation, Director Kris Eide of Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management said.

Prillaman said costs are soaring just to keep current in firefighting training, not counting how to deal with all the other situations firefighters must handle.

He said the state gave money to form and equip regional hazardous materials teams, but provides no money to maintain the equipment. He warned legislators not to hand fire departments “additional unfunded mandates.”