In July, 47 people died in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in the first disaster involving a North Dakota oil train. Four months later, in Aliceville, Ala., another oil train exploded and burned, but nobody was hurt. In 2009, a deadly ethanol train derailment and fire in Cherry Valley, Ill., prompted the NTSB to issue specific recommendations to upgrade the nation’s tanker fleet.
Mann, who represents unions and others on rail safety issues, said that all of the recent oil train explosions involved tank cars built before 2011, a model known in the industry as the DOT-111.
In the north metro city of Coon Rapids, which is crossed by two rail lines, city leaders in December petitioned federal regulators to get started on the tank car upgrades. The city’s resolution stemmed from a National League of Cities conference earlier last year where cities, especially Chicago suburbs, discussed rail car safety.
“The concern is the integrity of the tank cars — are they inspected and structurally sound?” Coon Rapids City Manager Steve Gatlin asked.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has called for retrofitting the nation’s tanker fleet. In Minnesota, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a member of the House Transportation Committee, said he hopes the committee will examine the issue.
“It was incredibly lucky that no one was harmed in the accident in Casselton,” Walz said in an e-mailed statement. “It is clear there is still more we can and should do to enhance safety when shipping hazardous materials to market.”
A Web-based petition last fall by the progressive group CREDO Action collected 58,000 supporters of banning the “dangerous DOT-111 tanker cars in our communities.”
“They are basically bombs running through the middle of cities,” said Elijah Zarlin of the San Francisco-based group. “Each one of these accidents … shows that this isn’t just a potential threat, it is an actual, real threat.”
Railroad towns are re-examining emergency plans. Last summer, Minnesota hazardous materials teams got extra training on crude oil. And Gov. Mark Dayton last week asked the state public safety and transportation departments to review train traffic and regulations.
“This is a very new issue for the state,” said Bob Hume, spokesman for the governor. “The concerns are certainly understandable and shared by the state.”
Soon after the Quebec disaster, Canadian and U.S. regulators ordered rail carriers not to leave trains unattended, a key factor in that accident. Regulators in both countries also have told North Dakota shippers to accurately classify their crude oil’s hazard level, which partly hinges on the amount of potentially explosive dissolved gas it contains.
U.S. agencies announced a “Bakken blitz” to test crude oil shipments in August. Based on preliminary results of that effort, regulators warned shippers last week that light crude from that region may be more flammable than heavy oil. But regulators stopped short of saying that Bakken crude poses a special danger and said sample testing is still underway.
Mark Winfield, an associate professor at York University in Toronto, has called on Canadian authorities to launch a judicial inquiry into regulatory lapses before the Lac-Mégantic disaster. Among the questions after the disaster is whether Bakken oil is more explosive.
“It is hard to believe that nobody on the inside, among the regulators, didn’t realize there was a potential problem here,” Winfield said.
Small-town mayors in western Minnesota like Matt Brenk of Detroit Lakes are at a loss for what they can do to reassure concerned residents other than to revise emergency plans.
“We’re just seeing so much more rail traffic with oil tankers,” he said.
In Perham, Minn., which is also on the BNSF line and has witnessed two minor derailments in the past 21 years, Mayor Tim Meehl questions whether regulators can limit the number of oil tankers going through towns or make rail cars safer.