The emergency management director for St. Paul held up a sheet of paper covered with a large black square. It was a redacted record he had requested to learn how railroad companies would respond to a potential oil train derailment in his city.
“The good news is that it’s double-sided,” Rick Larkin, the emergency official, joked during a legislative hearing at the State Capitol this week as he turned over the paper to reveal another black square.
Larkin and emergency responders around Minnesota are intensifying pressure on railroad companies to release the information that towns and counties say they need to prepare for a crash involving Bakken crude oil and other hazardous liquids that travel over the state’s nearly 4,500 miles of track.
Oil train safety has emerged as a major issue in Minnesota, particularly as so many trains make their way through or near heavily populated areas. An oil train derailment in West Virginia last year created a massive and deadly fireball that at times soared 20 stories into the air, renewing emergency response concerns around the country. Also last year, a train hauling 109 tanker cars derailed outside the town of Heimdal, N.D. Ten of the cars caught fire, scorching the surrounding land and sending flames shooting into the sky.
Minnesota emergency responders are asking legislators to force railroad companies to turn over disaster planning records, saying they need to coordinate a more detailed response plan in the event of a hazardous explosion.
Among other things, local authorities want rail companies to share the amount and type of safety and firefighting equipment they would bring to a scene, the number of emergency responders and their areas of expertise along various rail routes. Even more basically, they want estimates of how long it would take the railroads’ emergency crews to respond to a disaster.
Railroads filed emergency response plans last summer with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in response to a 2014 law, but local officials want to strengthen the disclosure requirements using legislation under consideration in the House and Senate.
“It’s always the people in fire trucks, police squads and ambulances of local jurisdictions who will actually have to face the emergencies,” said Eric Waage, Hennepin County’s emergency management director. “They conduct the evacuations, they rescue the trapped, they treat the injured and they bring order to the scene.”
The railroad industry has pushed back, saying it already has shared extensive information with regulators. Minnesota’s largest railroad, the BNSF Railway, said it has been informing officials about its one-stop website for first responders.
“A lot of material exists already,” said Amy McBeth, a spokeswoman for the BNSF. “We’re working on communication, which it sounds like we can do better on.”
She said the company has plans to meet with emergency responders in May to continue discussions. The BNSF already has trained thousands of Minnesota’s responders on dealing with hazardous accidents over the last two years.
While local authorities are seeking railroad response plans tailored to their particular counties and cities, McBeth noted that the company’s response would be similar from one point to another. She added that the BNSF does make different plans depending on the type of place where an accident might happen, such as in a river.
The BNSF also has raised concerns about the security of making more details of its response plans publicly available, potentially making the rail lines more vulnerable to those looking to cause harm.
Waage said he has received information “so generic that it has absolutely no local information at all. An emergency manager in Phoenix, Arizona, would get the same value out of it that I can, because it has nothing to do with the local area.”
Other times, railroad companies have asked Waage and his counterparts to sign nondisclosure agreements that legally restrict them from discussing the information with anyone else, which they say makes it impossible to share with a larger response team.
Coon Rapids Fire Chief John Piper told a House panel this week that one of his fire captains explained that “since he doesn’t know what resources the railroads will bring, he will not be relying on them for anything. That’s not a good situation. … Frankly, I’m not comfortable with that position.”
Fire departments also said that many firefighters would not have access to the rail industry’s AskRail app, which gives real-time data during a train derailment. In Fridley, for instance, Fire Chief John Berg said that only six out of 40 fire responders can access AskRail through city cellphones. Many firefighters do not take phones to emergency scenes.
Rep. Frank Hornstein, who is sponsoring the disclosure measure in the House, said it continues the efforts the Legislature has made over the last three years to address rail safety issues as western North Dakota sends trains loaded with crude oil through Minnesota on its way to refineries.
The Minneapolis DFLer also pushed in the proposed law to allow the state to add up to five new rail inspectors, but reduced the number to two after opposition from the rail industry.
Larkin, the St. Paul official, said that the BNSF did ultimately give him the unredacted version of the document he showed legislators. It has some of the information he wants, “but it still doesn’t meet our full needs,” Larkin said. “I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt, but we still need the legislation to essentially memorialize that this is the expectation.”