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DeMartin: Beach’s public safety sellout

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Around here, Bakken crude has a simple meaning: money and jobs. But elsewhere this is not so.

Beyond our borders, Bakken crude is thought of much differently. There, it is said to have a dark side. It is described by some as dangerous and moody. It stirs anxiety. It evokes caution and fear. Among public officials, entrusted with the safe-keeping of their citizenry, it goes even further and haunts their sleep.

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To understand why, one need only watch the YouTube videos of the horrific accident in Lac Megantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people and destroyed the downtown in an unimaginable conflagration. Then, with the sound of those frantic French-Canadian voices still ringing in your ears, you can watch yet another video of exploding Bakken crude, this one closer to home, in Casselton.

After this, read the sobering alert from the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration, a federal agency, warning that Bakken crude “may be more flammable than traditional heavy crude,” a caution shared by FEMA, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Railroad Administration, which is now exploring ways to re-route oil rail cars away from population centers.

Read next the Wall Street Journal story which reports that Bakken crude is so like gasoline that you can actually run your car off it, thus explaining the anxiety expressed by the president of the Minnesota Professional Firefighters that if Bakken crude were to explode in his state, it would likely “result in loss of life and property on a massive scale.”

Lastly, reflect on the National Transportation Safety Board’s grim assessment that moving Bakken crude by rail poses “an unacceptable public risk” and that first responders should develop comprehensive “worst-case” scenarios for handling this hazardous material.

What’s one to conclude, other than Bakken crude has a lot of smart people extremely worried? And, apparently, putting this stuff anywhere near a population center is a very bad and dangerous idea.

Yet, it is an idea that hardly worries anyone in Beach, where the city council is now poised to approve the construction of a transloading facility that would warehouse this chemically volatile crude in massive 200,000-barrel above-ground tanks on the very doorstep of its town. That a population of 1,200 people, including children and elderly, will live vulnerably close to this danger does not seem to matter much.

Beach has no fear. It heeds no warning. It sees only money and jobs.

Any argument in behalf of public safety is batted away with bravado. At a recent public hearing, a citizen rose to announce that “risk is part of life.” While another echoed that “there’s risk in getting out of bed in the morning.”

Hubris aside, what would happen if an oil tanker truck were to stall dead while crossing over the BNSF mainline track at Carlyle Road, which all railport truck traffic must nervously navigate to enter and exit the facility? And what if at that inopportune moment, an unstoppable freight train also approaches? Could a collision there cascade into something worse? Something even catastrophic? Does this not sound like the “worst-case” scenario the NTSB warns of?

Then, if an accident were to occur, could Beach even be evacuated quickly enough? Or, would black, acrid smoke fill its schools and neighborhoods even before the 911 call was made — the city being so close?

But arguments like these go nowhere. Beach craves money and jobs. That’s all there is to it.

OK then. But, thereafter, when it is said of government that its first responsibility is to secure and protect public safety, without which little else matters, we will all know that this high ideal does not apply to cities everywhere. That some cities, like Beach, have more important things on their mind than the safety of its citizens.

DeMartin is a guest columnist and contributor to The Dickinson Press from Beach.

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