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Letter: Priority at BNSF is safety

By: Carl Ice, INFORUM

BNSF Railway is thankful there were no injuries – to first responders, the community or our employees – in the derailment and subsequent fire near Casselton, N.D., last week, and we deeply appreciate the cooperation and great work of local responders and the community of Casselton.

Now, across North Dakota and much of the country, appropriate questions are being asked about the safety of moving crude oil by rail. I believe it is important for us to have this conversation and that it is BNSF’s obligation to communicate what we are doing to reduce risk as much as possible to safely ship one of North Dakota’s most valuable resources. Nothing is more important than operating safely in all of the communities in which our employees live and which we are fortunate to serve.

We are focused on preventing accidents in the first place. We do this through investing in our infrastructure to ensure the integrity and reliability of our network, a culture of safety with our employees that emphasizes proper training and compliance, and a robust track and equipment inspection program that exceeds federal standards.

We have always handled some commodities with extra precaution to further reduce risk. These trains have special identification and tracking, more restrictive handling procedures and lower speeds. This past summer, crude oil and ethanol were both designated as commodities to receive this special handling.

These measures alone, however, are not enough. As The Forum has pointed out, we must also be prepared for the worst-case scenario of an incident. We must do everything possible so that BNSF and communities are prepared to respond if an incident like what happened in Casselton occurs.

BNSF has specialized equipment and more than 200 hazmat responders staged at locations across our network, including several in North Dakota, to address hazmat and crude oil incidents. This effort is supported by a network of contract emergency and environmental responders intended to execute a rapid and well-coordinated response with local agencies.

We also provide community hazmat response training across our network so that local emergency responders are better prepared for an incident involving rail. Multiple trainings were conducted in North Dakota last year, most recently in Fargo this past fall, and we will do more in 2014. It is essential that we are a meaningful partner with communities in sharing our experience and best practices in dealing with rail incidents.

Even though the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into last week’s incident is underway, it is important that we move ahead now and look at what additional changes can and should be made to further reduce the risk of transporting crude by rail. First and foremost, I believe implementing tougher tank car standards and phasing out the older DOT-111 tank car is a necessity.

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration currently has a regulatory rulemaking underway on establishing a new federal tank car standard. As part of this proceeding, the railroads have called for PHMSA to require improvements that exceed both the DOT-111 and the 2011 industry standard.

Would these tank cars have made a difference in the Casselton derailment? We cannot say for sure at this point, but we do know that a stronger tank car provides an additional reduction of risk that is worth pursuing.

BNSF takes responsibility for our role in the development of the Bakken and operational safety is paramount to the service we provide in North Dakota. Railroads remain the safest ground transportation for freight in general and one of the safest ways to move crude oil. We understand the concerns raised by communities like Fargo and Casselton and those across our network.

Ice is president and chief executive officer of BNSF Railway.

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