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FNS Photo by Dave Wallis Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton asks a question of officials about railroad concerns at a meeting Tuesday at Minnesota State University Moorhead (Minn.). Seated next to him is Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams.

Dayton: Railroads, oil firms must take some financial responsibility for rail safety

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MOORHEAD, Minn. — Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton said Tuesday that railroads and oil companies “are going to have to take their share of financial responsibility” for the costs of keeping rail movement of oil from North Dakota’s Oil Patch and other regions safe as it moves through Minnesota.

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Dayton, who led a roundtable on rail safety at Minnesota State University Moorhead, said “this whole system is really overloaded” and that it will need more than Band-Aid solutions to handle increases in rail traffic.

“We ought to really eyeball what the changes are that we will need” in infrastructure and for safety “for the next 20 years,” Dayton told the group.

“It can’t wait any longer. It shouldn’t have waited this long,” he said.

Beyond moving oil safely, the governor told reporters that the shortage of railcars to move harvested grain is another indicator that Minnesota probably needs another major rail line.

The event included an announcement that the Moorhead Fire Department will receive $100,000 in state funds to staff and train a regional emergency response team and buy equipment.

The state’s only other emergency response team is based in the Twin Cities.

Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams said about 127 trains pass through the city each day — five or six of them oil trains. An increasing number of trains are 100 cars or longer, she said.

“If you can visualize what happened in Casselton happening in downtown Moorhead, that’s what keeps you up at night,” Williams said.

A derailment of a grain train Dec. 30 just west of Casselton forced an oil train to derail. That resulted in massive explosions as train cars ruptured. And it forced an evacuation as clouds of smoke from the burning oil wafted over parts of Casselton.

Democratic state Sen. Kent Eken represents District 4, which includes Moorhead. Eken said the oil boom in western North Dakota and eastern Montana will last for decades.

“It’s going to be a big issue for some time to come,” Eken reminded the group.

Chris Etzler, mayor of Staples, said at any given time, the eight tracks in his town’s rail yard may have four or five oil trains parked.

“There’s a lot of oil in town,” he said.

Chris Muller, emergency management director for Beltrami County, said it’s not just Bakken oil coming through places like Bemidji, but oil from Canada, too. He urged safety for all rail lines.

“We have the scary black and scary white cars going through there,” Muller said.

If a Casselton-type derailment and the subsequent blasts were to happen in downtown Perham, Mayor Tim Meehl said “it would wipe us right off the map.”

Moorhead Fire Chief Rich Duysen said Minnesota needs an emergency response plan, and the public needs to know the limitations of local responders given the potential scale of damage.

After all, Duysen said, many oil trains have 100 cars of fuel, while a 747 uses perhaps two oil tanks of fuel at a time.

Meehl said there are lots of hazardous materials moving on trains. Even empty railcars could be dangerous, given the volatility of petroleum fumes.

“Are they (empty oil cars) missiles coming back? We need the oil. We just have to do it in a safe manner,” Meehl said. “It scares the bejesus out of you to know what’s coming through town on the trains.”

Dayton said it will be important to take stock of the state’s needs and determine what can be done, how soon it can be done, and whether the costs should be shouldered by the state or private industry.

Public Safety Commissioner Mona Dohman said railroads are being required by a new law to provide emergency response training to fire departments and other safety officials along oil train routes.

The “Bakken 101” classes start this month, Dohman said.

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Helmut Schmidt
Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.
(701) 241-5583
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