New regulationss could prevent SE Como oil spills

Proposed railway speed limits through cities could prevent accidents.

Kevin Karner

New federal regulations could help prevent dangerous oil spills in neighborhoods like Southeast Como near the University of Minnesota where rail lines run.

In response to a report that discovered crude oil from parts of North Dakota is chemically volatile, the U.S. Department of Transportation released a comprehensive set of rules this summer designed to make transporting flammable materials by rail safer. The new procedures, which aren’t yet finalized, would affect several rail lines around the University’s campus that regularly transport crude oil.

Houston-based BNSF Railway currently operates the rail line that passes through the Southeast Como neighborhood, and a report from the railway released earlier this summer says that anywhere from 27 to 41 cars carrying crude oil from the Bakken region, which includes parts of North Dakota, pass through Hennepin County in a given week.

In addition, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, at least 515 chemically hazardous rail spills have occurred in Minnesota since 2004, including a 12,000-gallon crude oil leak near Winona earlier this year.

Crude oil shipments have increased from about 9,500 rail carloads in 2008 to about 415,000 loads in 2013. Shipments of Bakken oil from the North Dakota area are increasing. Production in the region has outpaced the approval of pipeline infrastructure normally used to transport the oil.

Additionally, the federal regulations would require better categorization of high-risk materials, new or retrofitted railcars and a train speed limit when passing through urban areas.

Railroad companies must alert individual cities about high-risk cargo that may be passing through their jurisdiction, said Bruce Kelii, a manager with Hennepin County Emergency Management.

Cities and townships are the first responders when an accident occurs, he said.

Former Southeast Como resident and University student Rebecca Orrison said she remembers hearing many trains go through the area, but never knew that they carried oil.

“I remember the sounds of trains, seeing lots of farm equipment and probably grain, but I had no idea there was oil being moved on those trains,” the environmental science senior said.

The Minnesota Legislature also passed rail safety legislation earlier this year that provides better emergency response training and preparedness in communities across Minnesota along rail lines.

“Trains carrying crude oil pass through our communities every day,” said Gov. Mark Dayton in a July press release. “We have learned from dangerous accidents in other states that without proper safety measures, that cargo could pose a very real risk to our citizens.”