By Don Davis
Plans to train first responders such as firefighters to battle oil disasters are gaining traction in the Minnesota Legislature.
“It takes just one of these trains at the wrong place at the wrong time for a catastrophe,” Rep. Jim Newberger, R-Becker, told fellow members of the House public safety committee Wednesday before it approved funding a program to provide more training funds for first responders to oil incidents.
“If a coal train derails, you get out a broom and sweep it up,” he said, but the committee heard of explosions that followed Quebec and North Dakota derailments last year.
Even as a fiscal conservative who does not like to spend money, Newberger said, he supports the bill because preparation is needed.
The bill calls for $5 million to be spent, half from assessing railroads and pipelines and half from a state budget surplus. Sponsor Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, said he expects his bill to last three years, after which a study would provide information to state leaders about long-term needs.
Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said that to him the assessment is a tax. He said the state already “is most of the way there” in funding first responder training, so Hornstein’s $5 million bill is not needed.
Hornstein said that as the bill moves from committee to committee within the Legislature, he plans to broaden it to allow more agencies other than fire departments receive money. The committee heard that state hazardous materials teams, law enforcement agencies and ambulance services also need more training funds.
The bill is one of three Hornstein introduced — with similar ones in the Senate — reacting to highly publicized train derailments in Quebec and North Dakota last year.
With western North Dakota’s Bakken oil field constantly increasing production and Alberta, Canada, oil transportation needs on the upswing, Hornstein said, Minnesota is the “epicenter” of oil transportation. He said both pipelines and railroads are carrying more oil.
A second Hornstein bill requires railroad and pipeline companies to submit plans to prevent oil leaks and how they would respond if leaks occur.
His third bill would add two or three rail inspectors to the one the state now has on staff. It also would provide $5 million to improve safety at railroad crossings used by trains carrying hazardous materials.
Railroads would be assessed the costs of the $5 million inspector and rail crossing proposal. They already are assessed to fund the single inspector.
Rail companies also would pay more for the Hornstein bill the committee passed Wednesday. He would institute a new assessment on pipelines to fund first responder preparedness.
Vice President Brian Sweeney of BNSF Railway Co. said his firm is looking into the assessment plan and has yet to take a stand on the provision.
House Speaker Paul Thissen, D-Minneapolis, earlier opposed a Hornstein plan to tax oil transported through Minnesota. Hornstein switched to the assessment, but it is not clear if that will survive in a year when Democrats who control the House are leery about raising taxes and fees.
Crude oil coming from North Dakota is regarded as more flammable than other types of oil, and state leaders from the governor down have said that Minnesota needs to be more prepared.
Hornstein said that federal officials earlier this year urged oil trains not to travel through densely populated cities. However, St. Paul officials told the committee that many go through their city.
The city’s emergency manager, Judd Freed, told of a rail yard six or seven miles long, with critical infrastructure nearby. “All of that oil comes through that yard.”
About a half-dozen oil trains a day go through the Twin Cities.