Legislators, emergency planners seek plan for safe oil clean-up

Oil clean up after a train crash is messy and disorganized but getting better.

by Benjamin Farniok

After a crude oil train explosion in Quebec left almost 50 people dead two years ago, legislators, activists and emergency responders began looking into enhancing safety regulations for trains passing through Minnesota. Partly to honor the dead from the Quebec incident, officials gathered outside the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in St. Paul last week to discuss increasing the transparency of existing oil train regulations. The state Legislature passed laws last year requiring railroad companies to submit emergency response plans should a crude oil train accident occur in a densely populated area. Officials are concerned emergency respondersâÄô lack of access to these procedures creates disorganized cleanup efforts. Eric Waage, Hennepin County emergency management director and president of the Association of Minnesota Emergency Managers, is responsible for organizing emergency responders in an accident. He said they would be able to respond more quickly and safely if they had a copy of each railroad companyâÄôs emergency procedures. âÄúI have faith that the responders will be professionals, but I want everyone to be absolutely clear on what they will have to do when they get there,âÄù he said, adding that a lack of access to the safety policies could lead to wasted time at the site of an accident. ItâÄôs concerning that emergency procedures arenâÄôt already in the hands of responders, Waage said. Officials will send emergency procedures to response organizations and release them to the public at the end of the month, but MPCA Emergency Response Manager Jane Braun said staff members must first edit the documents to remove sensitive content âÄî like where trains are going âÄî before releasing them. âÄúWe are following the law on Minnesota data practices,âÄù she said. âÄúOnce we make sure there is nothing in there that is not public data, we will release it.âÄù As part of the emergency procedures, railroad companies include information for cleaning up oil spills, which University bioproducts and biosystems engineering professor John Nieber said could lessen the negative impact on surrounding plants and water. When oil spills onto the ground, it is sometimes absorbed into groundwater, rivers or drinking water, which could put human and animal health at risk, Nieber said, adding that the oil that sticks to the soilâÄôs surface could prevent water absorption and keep plants from growing. âÄúYou can go down and pump all of it up, but you are only going to get about 30 percent of it,âÄù he said. At a press conference last week, state Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, asked railroad companies to work more closely with densely-populated cities to keep residents safe. âÄúThere is much work to be done,âÄù he said.