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Oil trains rumbling through the Twin Cities and crude oil pipelines that cross northern Minnesota will get greater state scrutiny under a measure passed Friday by the Legislature.
The oil transport measure, part of a large spending bill, raises $6.4 million this year from railroads, pipeline companies and taxpayers to hire more state rail inspectors, pay for specialized training and equipment for first responders, and fix dangerous highway-rail grade crossings along oil-train routes.
"Right now we are totally underequipped to deal with these kinds of incidents, and this is a good step in the right direction," said Chris Parsons, president of the Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters, which supported the measure.
The legislation grew out of concern that firefighters across the state lack the training and equipment to fight a massive fire as happened near Casselton, N.D., in late December when 20 railroad tank cars loaded with crude oil derailed and some exploded.
Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, the main sponsor of the measure, said it is "an important step to protect our communities and to respond to a very unexpected but significant development with oil transportation."
About eight oil trains, typically with 100 tank cars loaded with North Dakota crude, travel daily through big and small Minnesota cities on BNSF Railway and Canadian Pacific tracks, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
An even larger quantity of crude oil is carried through nine Minnesota pipelines that supply refineries in the Twin Cities and elsewhere. Two of the pipelines are being expanded and a 10th pipeline, the $2.6 billion Sandpiper project, is planned across northern Minnesota.
Oil spill disasters
Since 2006, at least 15 trains carrying crude oil or ethanol have crashed in the United States and Canada, spilling 4.9 million gallons of hazardous liquids, according to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA). The most disastrous oil train accident in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, last July killed 47 people and incinerated part of the town.
Gov. Mark Dayton also backed the measure and was expected to sign it. On Wednesday, Dayton urged legislative conferees to restore more stringent requirements such as those related to pipeline companies' duties to respond to spills. That language was removed in the Senate under industry lobbying.
Areas to target
Under the measure, railroads and pipeline companies must pay assessments based on track miles or pipeline volumes. That will raise $2.5 million a year to fund oil-spill emergency response efforts, including grants to train firefighters and purchase equipment. The state Department of Public Safety will study where the need is greatest.
Minnesota transportation officials also will study highway-rail grade crossings on oil train routes, identifying high-risk sites for improvement using $2 million in newly appropriated state funds. Three state rail inspectors will join the single inspector now checking tracks and equipment on Minnesota railways.
The measure also requires railroads within eight hours of a spill to partly deploy their accident-response team and equipment such as containment booms. All of the rest of the gear and trained staff must be on site in 60 hours. Those deadlines were not imposed on pipeline companies, although they face similar requirements under federal pipeline safety regulations.
Using additional funding authorized by the bill, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency plans to step up its review of pipelines' readiness to clean up worst-case oil spills. That authority exists in current law, but "in the last few years we have been concentrating more on terror preparedness and natural disaster preparedness and our own internal preparedness," said Steve Lee, head of the MPCA's emergency response unit.
Enbridge Energy, the largest crude oil pipeline operator in the state, said it recently invested $5.5 million in additional response equipment in Minnesota, and has it strategically placed in five locations. It also has conducted drills and training with local emergency agencies, and funded community grants for equipment purchases and training, said company spokeswoman Lorraine Little in an e-mail.