Dayton targets oil trains

The governor says crude oil train routes could be putting Minnesotans in harm’s way.

Erica Mahoney

As more crude oil trains rumble through the Twin Cities, Gov. Mark Dayton has raised concerns that area residents could be in danger. 

Dayton’s concerns center around new crude oil transportation from the Bakken region of North Dakota on railways not designated to carry the material. Those tracks pass through areas that include downtown Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota. 

In a letter last week to Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway CEO Carl Ice, Dayton said there has been a 30 percent increase in the number of people who live within a half mile of a crude oil route evacuation zone. 

“Nobody could predict where a catastrophic eruption could occur,” said Dayton in a press conference last week. “I’m not trying to scare people, but it’s a fact of life that they have occurred, and therefore we want to be doing everything we possibly can to prevent them from happening.”

Among the changes Dayton laid out in the press conference are better communication between the company and state and increased track inspections. He also said he would like the company cease operation of oil trains during events at Target Field because the railway runs underneath the stadium. 

In an emailed statement, BNSF said the company has a comprehensive safety program that includes enhanced protocols for the movement of hazardous materials.

“We reduce risk and increase safety through daily track inspections, the placement of additional trackside detectors to monitor rail car conditions and by operating at a lower speed,” the statement read. 

Tim Busse, University Services director of communications, said the school has plans in case an emergency involving oil trains occurs.

Tracks that carry 11 to 23 BNSF crude oil trains per week pass through the Willmar-Minneapolis-St. Paul rail line, which runs through the Northeast part of the University’s campus, according to the letter. 

“We’re comfortable with where we are in terms of our continuity operations plans and our emergency operations plans,” he said. “We’ve got extensive emergency management and operations plans in place to deal with just about any kind of emergency you might imagine here at the University.” 

Busse said the University’s Department of Emergency Management, the University of Minnesota Police Department, the Minneapolis police and fire departments, among other agencies, have been trained to handle emergencies with crude oil trains.

Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, who is a member of the Senate’s transportation committee, said BNSF has purchased a large number of new tanker cars that are much safer for transporting oil.

Part of the reason for the oil trains in the area is because BNSF is updating other rail lines within the state, said Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, who chairs the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee. 

“We understand the need for these changes due to their infrastructure improvements that are being made,” he said. “So to meet the end goal of being as safe as we can, we understand the need to do this.”