Minnesota firefighters and other first responders are not fully prepared for oil train and pipeline disasters, and better training and coordination is needed, says a state report released Thursday.
But the study by the state Department of Public Safety cautioned that oil spill hazards are "one of many risks" facing the state. Other threats — ranging from tornadoes to nuclear leaks — worry first responders just as much or more than oil accidents, the report said.
The study was ordered by the 2014 Legislature in response to the growing number of oil trains across the state — about seven per day — and the expansion of crude oil pipelines from Canada and North Dakota.
"It is a wake-up call," said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, who pushed for the law requiring the study. "If you overlay the rail and pipeline maps, this is clearly a statewide issue."
Railroads and pipeline companies, which have teams to respond to oil incidents, also participated in the study, but some companies declined to provide their emergency plans. The report didn't identify them.
The study surveyed local government officials about preparations for dealing with oil accidents. Overall, local emergency responders rated their preparedness for oil accidents as middling — 2.6 on a scale of one to five. More than half said additional training is needed. The department proposed creating a state grant program for local training and equipment.
The report said local governments generally don't have the equipment or personnel needed to respond to a significant oil accident. Some governments emphasized that they "are not the primary responsible party for an oil transportation incident — the rail or pipeline company is responsible," the report said.
Rail and pipeline companies told the department they are "ready and able" to respond to oil incidents, the report said. In some cases, the report said, experts believe firefighters should focus on evacuating people and "let the fire burn out or down considerably before attacking the fire."
In 2014, the Legislature added $8 million for oil spill emergency response, funded mainly from a fee on railroads. The Public Safety Department, which has a central role in emergency response, urged lawmakers to hold off on adding to or ending such spending until needs are better understood.
But the department urged legislators to adopt deadlines for responding to pipeline accidents, a requirement that now only applies to railroads. Enbridge Energy, the Calgary-based company with the most crude oil pipelines in Minnesota, has opposed the requirement, saying federal rules address it.
The two major oil-hauling railroads, BNSF Railway and Canadian Pacific, said they were still studying the report.
Amy McBeth, a spokesman for BNSF, said the railroad offered 1,200 Minnesota first responders community hazmat training this year, sent 130 Minnesota firefighters to the national railroad training center in Colorado and has trained more than 70,000 first responders across its system since 1996.