Jim Adams | Star Tribune
Police and firefighters in Anoka County are receiving more disaster-response training as oil trains move millions of gallons of North Dakota crude through the county and Twin Cities every day.
Concerns were heightened last month, when 16 freight cars derailed in the city of Ramsey. Fortunately, the cars were empty and the incident caused no injuries, but it gave officials pause.
“The reality is as more and more traffic comes down the tracks, the probabilities of accidents happening go up,” said Anoka County Commissioner Matt Look, who represents Ramsey. He said a derailment like the one on June 13 “could have been oil cars and a fire [could have] ignited and we would be evacuating.”
In the past decade, Minnesota has become a major thoroughfare for North Dakota crude heading for Midwest and East Coast refineries. About six oil trains, often with 100 cars, roll through the Twin Cities each day, and five of them go through Anoka County, said Dave Christianson, a senior freight and rail planner for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).
As North Dakota pumps more crude, the number of tankers gradually increases and people are noticing, Christianson said. He receives calls every week from local officials, residents and others asking about oil train risks and proximity.
The issue also resonates well beyond Minnesota. On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed a set of new safety regulations for trains carrying oil, ethanol and other hazardous liquids.
In Minnesota, Christianson said he has visited many of the 128 cities along the state’s crude oil train lines and estimates about half are properly trained for responding to emergencies.
“There definitely is a gap in training that we have to satisfy. We will have a much more extensive program and government officials will be checking training regiments,” he said. “The state’s goal is to have comprehensive training for emergency response along crude oil routes.”
“Ramsey, along with everyone else along the tracks, is taking this very seriously,” said Fire Chief Dean Kapler. He said his firefighters received training from Burlington Northern last year about how to identify high- or low-pressure propane or oil cars from a distance so they would know what they faced if cars derailed. However, no community alone has the equipment and manpower to deal with an oil tanker explosion like the one that happened in late December in Casselton, N.D., Kapler said.
In April, the Minnesota Legislature passed an oil transport law providing more than $6 million, partly from railroad and oil pipeline company fees, for more tanker and pipeline-disaster training, for more state track inspectors, and to identify and repair dangerous highway rail crossings. The state will hire additional inspectors to augment those who now monitor oil route tracks, Christianson said. The railroad companies also have inspectors checking track safety.
The new law would also provide more equipment to handle possible disasters like the explosion in Cassleton that caused evacuations but no deaths. A Canadian derailment and fire killed more than 40 people last July and devastated a small town in Quebec when a 72-car train bearing Bakken crude exploded, news reports said.
The Ramsey derailment “is another example of why we need much tighter scrutiny of freight rail cars and oil tankers. If this had been an oil train there could have been some very serious problems,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, chief author of the oil transport law.
BNSF Railway owns the tracks but not the rail cars that carry most of Minnesota’s crude through the Twin Cities. The railroad told local officials last month that it was investigating the cause of the Ramsey derailment and would file its findings with federal authorities by the end of July.
“We look at all aspects of the incident to understand what happened and why, so we can prevent it from happening again,” said BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth
McBeth said BNSF and the rail industry have taken steps in recent months to reduce the risk of moving crude. She said BNSF offered to lower speeds to 40 miles per hour for trains carrying 20 or more loaded tankers, and did so before a federal-industry agreement lowering speeds went into effect on July 1 for all railroads.
The lower oil train speed applies in 46 federally designated urban areas, including the Twin Cities, Christianson said. (One of the new federal regulations proposed Wednesday would make that voluntary 40 mph limit mandatory.)
He noted that the Federal Railroad Administration issued an order June 6 directing railroads to notify state emergency officials of how many trains carrying Bakkan oil will pass oil route towns each week. The state posts the data on a secure website so county emergency response officials can use it in disaster plans, said Kevin Reed, branch director of Homeland Security and Operations for Minnesota.
North and west metro cities are among those doing more training on how to handle oil car derailments. Fridley and Coon Rapids police and firefighters, for example, attended a session in April on what to expect should tankers derail and ignite, Reed said.
“We are moving in right direction,” he said. “We started talking [to responders] a year ago. Most of the locals can handle a response of some kind with some help.”
McBeth said that BNSF instructs thousands of first responders each year and since 2009 has provided free training for more than 730 responders in Minnesota, including those attending a recent session in Big Lake. She said the railroad also pays to send firefighters to learn about handling crude derailments at the national railroad training center in Pueblo, Colo.
BNSF has 30 track inspectors in Minnesota who check key routes twice as often as required, she said. The railroad also uses laser, radar and ultrasound equipment to detect track wear and invisible flaws in steel rails and the ballast beds beneath them. “It is in our business interest to prevent any accident and injury which is why we have put so much investment and effort into safety,” McBeth said.
Fridley Fire Chief John Berg said some of his firefighters have had live training for fighting flammable liquid fires at Flint Hills Refinery in the past few years. He said Fridley firefighter training on BNSF rail cars is scheduled for mid-September. Berg also noted he can call for emergency help from the North Metro Hazardous Material Team in Blaine, whose members have taken oil car firefighting classes at the Colorado railroad training center.
The biggest lesson learned from previous tanker fires and spills is “you can’t do it by yourself,” said Terry Stoltzman, Anoka County Emergency Management director. “It is a team effort of public and private resources.”