Minnesota plans 'Bakken awareness 101'
LITTLE CANADA, Minn. — Minnesota emergency services personnel will be trained and equipped in a few years to deal with oil train disasters, but the governor worries about what could happen before then.
"If the accident would just wait for two years, three years, four years, boy, would we be ready," Gov. Mark Dayton on Monday told his first in a series of rail safety roundtables.
Dayton’s public safety commissioner, Ramona Dohman, told the governor that every city and county must have plans for dealing with disasters, but not specifically how to handle volatile North Dakota crude oil that fills about 50 trains that cross Minnesota each week.
"We are the cross-country freeway for this because it is going to the East Coast," said Dave Christianson of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
Local government plans are "one size fits all..." Dohman said. "They cover whatever may happen in your community."
"It is just that they have not responded to these spills and fires..." the commissioner said. "How do you respond to the Casselton fire?"
Dohman and others from the public safety community said they are concerned about how Minnesota would deal with an oil train fire like in Casselton, late last year. Or an accident that killed people in Quebec.
Or a fire in West Virginia. Or any of a number of other incidents involving crude oil pumped from the Bakken oil field in western North Dakota. Most of that oil is transported across Minnesota.
Doug Bergland, the Washington County emergency management director, said many firefighters already have 40-hour classes dealing with hazardous material response, but nothing specific about the crude oil that often moves in 100-car unit trains.
He said he does not think that most law enforcement officers have any significant training on that issue.
"We are in uncharted territory here," said state Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, a sponsor of legislation that passed earlier this year to help fund training for first responders.
Christianson said that problems exist on several levels, including lack of training, lack of proper equipment and aging 1960s-era rail cars. "You have gaps layered upon gaps, layered upon gaps for the next three years. ... In the meantime, we have real risks for communities."
Dohman said that first responders will begin to get rail oil safety training next month. "Bakken awareness 101," she called it.
However, she added, limited money is available and none will be spent on improving training for responders who already know the basics.
Dayton said the first thing that needs to be done is to make sure someone is in charge of looking ahead to see what the oil transportation situation will be in the next decade.
He promised that person will be named within a week.
The task will be difficult. Hornstein said that Bakken oil transportation has increased 70-fold since 2005, and North Dakota oil production continues to increase.
"This is not a theoretical problem," Hornstein said.
A report from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration singled out Bakken crude as being more volatile and riskier to transport than other U.S. crudes.
However, a recent North Dakota Petroleum Council-commissioned study yielded similar data as the PHMSA study but found Bakken crude to be consistent with other types of light, sweet crude.
Christianson contends that Bakken crude is more dangerous than other oil: "This stuff if so volatile, you don’t fight the fire, you evacuate."
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman called the situation frustrating for elected and public safety officials, who have a difficult time dealing with the ever-changing situation.
With an expanding railyard in his city, more trains will carry many types of dangerous substances are expected. Up to eight oil trains a day go through St. Paul.
In additional to the legislation that funded training, lawmakers ordered state officials to report back on how many crossings along oil train routes need to be upgraded, and to complete an assessment of training and equipment in public safety agencies where oil trains travel.
Dayton said that he plans similar meetings along oil train routes in coming weeks, with the next in coming days in Moorhead, near where most North Dakota oil enters Minnesota.