State, local lawmakers address oil train concerns

City leaders want more information about safety procedures from train companies.

Erica Mahoney

As many as six trains loaded with oil from North Dakota and Canada pass through the Twin Cities every day.
As trains carrying hazardous material continue to pass through densely populated areas, local and national lawmakers have called for additional railway safety regulations, echoing concerns Gov. Mark Dayton raised last month.  
The focus on railroad safety comes in the midst of an increase in oil-hauling train traffic through highly populated areas, which include the northern edges of the University of Minnesota. 
Concern from city, state and national leaders over the potential dangers has caused policymakers to ask for more rules and regulations to help protect people living near rail corridors.
Earlier this month, the Minneapolis City Council  proposed a resolution that included 21 requests of railroad companies and federal and state authorities to ensure that the city — which is one of the busiest rail hubs in the nation — is prepared for potential accidents.
“We’ve got a lot of people concentrated [in one area] and schools and hospitals and stadiums around this rail activity,” said Ward 1 Councilman Kevin Reich, who co-authored the council’s proposal. “So we really have to recognize that we are in a unique situation and would like unique protections and unique ability to address issues.” 
The council’s request includes improved inspection transparency by rail companies, better communication between companies and state and local officials and approval to study the feasibility of rerouting trains hauling hazardous materials away from residential areas. 
The city council’s proposal also urged Congress to enact legislation to enhance railroad safety. 
On Nov. 10, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., sent a letter to Burlington Northern Santa Fey Railway, which has increased its train traffic in the Twin Cities, to ask the company to provide a more thorough report about its emergency management procedures.
Ward 2 Councilman Cam Gordon said people within his ward and around the University area regularly contact him about rail safety. 
“Sometimes we don’t even know when hazardous materials are being transported through the city or how many [rail cars],” he said. “Right now we feel very powerless.” 
Since 2013, at least six cities in the U.S. and Canada have experienced fiery accidents that involved oil trains. Earlier this month, two trains derailed in Wisconsin, which led lawmakers in that state to introduce legislation to boost rail safety. 
In an emailed statement, BNSF said it has already addressed many of the city leaders’ concerns.
“We already do much of what is discussed in the resolution and more,” said Amy McBeth, a spokeswoman for the company, in the email. 
She said the company uses the safest routes for shipping hazardous materials, routinely meets with officials and first responders and has strict operating procedures. 
While Reich said he agrees with some company’s claims, the city would still like more control over railroad safety measures.
“None of that addresses the notion of only the federal government regulating them and our issue of wanting to have somewhat local control — which they are silent on,” he said.