Emergency Managers Want More Railroad Communications

Oil rail safety advocates hold up a banner Tuesday, July 7, 2015. Roses were used to remember the 47 who died in a Quebec oil train explosion two years ago Monday. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)
Oil rail safety advocates hold up a banner Tuesday, July 7, 2015. Roses were used to remember the 47 who died in a Quebec oil train explosion two years ago Monday. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Many Minnesota emergency managers say railroads that haul crude oil should communicate with them better.

“Planning done in a silo is not effective,” Director Judson Freed of Ramsey County Emergency Management and Homeland Security said Tuesday as rail safety advocates called for more cooperation. “We need to know what their experts are saying.”

Some of that information is becoming available after five railroads filed state-required emergency response plans with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency last week. However, the emergency managers say that is not enough.

Rick Larkin, Freed’s St. Paul equivalent, praised a couple dozen citizens gathered for the rail safety news conference “to really demand action from the railroads.”

While Larkin said railroad trainers do a good job working with local firefighters and other public safety officials, “we need a willing partner” with railroad executives.

Democratic legislators and members of Citizens Acting for Rail Safety-Twin Cities called the news conference to demand that last week’s reports be made public.

MPCA spokesman Dave Verhasselt said that already was his department’s intention, once railroad and state lawyers remove parts that should not be public due to security and competitive reasons. City and county emergency managers can view the reports now.

A spokeswoman for the railroad that carries the most North Dakota crude oil across Minnesota, BNSF Railway Co., said it has complied with state law.

“We understand MPCA is in the process of reviewing BNSF’s plan and we’ll work with the state agency as it responds to requests for public release of the plan,” Amy McBeth said. “We will continue working with officials and responders to share information and provide ongoing training as we have done for decades.”

In the past two years, she said, BNSF has conducted hazardous materials training with 1,700 public safety personnel near its Minnesota tracks.

“We have emergency response plans in place that we routinely evaluate, test and update,” McBeth said. “We have always and continue to work with state responders on preparedness planning and training.”

A leader of the citizens’ safety group, Cathy Velasquez Eberhart, said that no realized how dangerous living near railroad tracks could be “until we started to see them exploding in other parts of the country.”

No oil trains have derailed and exploded in Minnesota, even though much of the crude from western North Dakota’s Bakken oilfield moves across Minnesota rails. Most goes on rail lines from Moorhead, through the Twin Cities and south along the Mississippi River. Canadian oil, ethanol and other hazardous materials also travel in Minnesota.

“Oil trains go within a few feet of our Mississippi River,” Eberhart said, standing in the parking lot of the pollution agency that would be in charge of cleaning up oil spills and a few hundred feet from tracks carrying oil-filled rail cars.

Eberhart said she hopes her group can expand statewide to represent those concerned about rail safety.

Larkin said that state law requires railroads to meet annually with public safety officials in communities where oil trains travel. The reports filed last week are “starting points” for those meetings, he said.

However, those annual meetings are not open to the public and many at the Tuesday event called for more public information.

“They are not willing to share it in an open forum,” Larkin said. “They do the minimum compliance.”

State Rep. Dan Schoen, D-St. Paul Park, said that keeping some information private makes sense so it is more difficult for people to discover weaknesses in rail security.

However, Schoen added, the public needs more oil train information, something he said would help railroads.

“The trust factor with railroads might be down,” said Schoen, a Cottage Grove police officer.