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ND rail safety takes another step forward

WILLISTON --- The state of North Dakota has added another step to help ensure the safety of crude transport by rail with the addition of two inspectors and a rail safety program.

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Morgue File photo

WILLISTON --- The state of North Dakota has added another step to help ensure the safety of crude transport by rail with the addition of two inspectors and a rail safety program.

Improving safety of rail transport has been a multi-pronged approach. First, the state set guidelines for vapor pressure to make Bakken crude more uniform and no more explosive than gasoline. Federal regulators meanwhile strengthened rail car standards and made available grants for training and equipment for first responders in the state, to ensure all departments know how to respond to pipeline, truck and rail car accidents involving hazardous materials.

The latest move is finalizing certifications for the two state inspectors with the new Rail Safety Program spearheaded by Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak and approved by the state Legislature in 2015.

"The state rail program has quickly moved from concept to reality," Fedorchak said. "Now we have two state inspectors on the job every day enhancing third-party oversight of the rail system that is vital to our economy and runs through the heart of nearly every North Dakota community."

The state's two inspectors have so far completed a combined 76 inspections covering 1,050 miles of the state's 3,000 miles of track. The inspectors are focused on two areas, track and mechanical, which have been identified as the source of the largest number and most severe accidents.

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"Three thousand miles of track is a huge system," Fedorchak said, "but they have rotations scheduled throughout the state every three to four weeks. And they are making sure to follow back on things that need to be fixed."

The rotation will put the two inspectors going through Williston more than once a year, Fedorchak said, though she couldn't be specific on how many times Williston-area tracks would be inspected. The rotations take into account which areas need it the most, as well as the schedules of federal inspectors. The rotations are being spaced out so that they do not immediately follow a federal inspection.

With certification from the Federal Railroad Administration out of the way, the state's two inspectors are now authorized to inspect to federal rail standards and have the same authority and tools as federal inspector, and may also work independently.

On the track so far inspected, they have identified an unspecified number of defects, which are generally minor problems that could lead to bigger concerns if left unfixed. Those are not public record.

"They could be a hand-hold that is loose, for example," Fedorchak said. "Or maybe something is wrong with the track that won't cause a derailment yet, but could jeopardize safety if left unfixed. We want them to find things when they are defects so we can fix them before they become violations."

Violations are serious conditions that require immediate attention, and can result in civil penalties if left unfixed. Inspectors issued nine violations for substandard conditions. A list of these has been requested, but was not immediately available.

The program is being funded by an existing diesel fuel tax paid by railroad companies, a portion of which is set aside for safety. The state's two inspectors are hired by and entirely accountable to the North Dakota Public Service Commission.

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