Oil spill specter shadows Minnesota rail towns

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 16, 2013 - 10:36 AM

N.D. boom has reinvigorated train traffic, but what if nags at some who live near tracks.

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– Christie Eichholz once thought that the trains passing just a few blocks from her house were filled with harmless grain.

Then earlier this year, a train derailed a mile north of town, spilling 15,000 gallons of North Dakota crude into the snow. Ten days ago, an explosion and fire caused by 70-plus derailed oil tankers in Canada left 50 presumed dead.

Now, the familiar trains appear more ominous, she said. “To me, it’s definitely concerning.”

In this small western Minnesota city north of Alexandria, as well as for others along the state’s crisscrossing rail lines, there’s a growing unease about trains that are increasingly weighed down by oil from booming North Dakota.

Because oil wells are extracting far more oil than the pipelines can carry, the amount of U.S. crude oil traveling by rail has skyrocketed, from 9,500 cars in 2008 to more than 233,000 last year. This year’s totals are on pace to exceed 380,000.

Minnesota doesn’t keep track of rail use or what trains are carrying. But Minnesota’s two largest railroads — Canadian Pacific and BNSF Railway Co. — have direct lines from the North Dakota oil fields and are quick to tout their growth there. CP is “positioned for [crude oil] carloads to grow by a factor of two to three times,” according to its presentation at a recent conference. In 2012, it transported 53,500 cars of crude. It expects to move 140,000 to 210,000 by 2016.

The state’s small cities have a complicated relationship with rail service, which moves much of the agricultural haul on which their regions depend. Many Parkers Prairie residents said they’re pleased that the railroad remains busy and even credit the March oil spill with a mini economic boom — railroad workers packed the local motel and ordered hamburgers by the dozens.

“Sure, there are dangers, but boy, the benefits outweigh them by far,” said Jody Sigfrid, owner of Jody’s Family Haircare, as she snipped a teenage girl’s dark locks.

‘Makes you start thinking’

Investigators in Canada are still trying to determine the cause of the July 6 disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, a town of 6,000 people. The derailment and explosion incinerated several blocks of the town, killing dozens, many of whom were inside a popular bar. As of late Monday, 37 bodies had been found and the search continued for 13 still missing and presumed dead.

The photos from Lac-Megantic worry Jill Westhoff. Her house is just a block from the railroad tracks that cut through Detroit Lakes, Minn. Both lines — one owned by BNSF, the other by CP — go into North Dakota.

“If those cars derailed here, they’d end up in my back yard,” she said, sitting outside Friday morning wit a cup of coffee. “The spill up there really makes you start thinking.”

Just across the street, Sarah Branden is less concerned. She has found railroad companies to be quick to respond and communicate. Plus, her grandfather worked for Burlington Northern, so she has a soft spot for the rumbling trains.

Branden, 29, has lived near railroad tracks all her life. She no longer hears the trains, really. But lately, she feels them.

“When the oil comes from Williston, you can tell the cars are heavier,” she said, referring to the epicenter of North Dakota’s oil boom.

Detroit Lakes officials plan to conduct an emergency-management exercise this month that — coincidentally — is based on a train derailment scenario. City Council Member Marty Waller said that this kind of live training helps county and city workers test their responses to various events.

“We’re always trying to stay ahead of the game,” Waller said.

He said he isn’t too concerned about the rising amount of crude oil being transported by rail — and that he hasn’t heard from any residents who are.

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