PARKERS PRAIRIE, Minn. – 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.
“Derailments aren’t very frequent,” he said. “Things are transported all the time, by train, truck and other ways. All we can do is prepare for the worst.”
There have been just two crude oil spills involving rail in the state: near Parkers Prairie and in Sartell in 2010. The Sartell spill was smaller, involving 120 gallons. Neither caused any injuries.
Since 1996, there have been at least 360 railroad spills of petroleum products, a broader category that includes light fuel oil and jet fuel. Most of them involved 100 gallons or less, according to records from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).
A BNSF spokeswoman pointed out that hazardous material — including those riskier than crude oil, such as ammonia and other chemicals — make up just 5 percent of what’s transported by rail.
Both BNSF and CP, neither of which was involved in the Quebec spill, touted their training of responders in cities across the state.
“Safety is a priority,” said CP spokesman Ed Greenberg. “It is a focus that will never change.”
Counting oil cars
The Cozy Cup Cafe in Parkers Prairie sells about 15 hamburgers a day. Maybe 20. But one day in January, it served 109.
The railroad workers were in town.
“It’s a shame when you have to say that, for a small town, a disaster is good. But it’s true,” said Alice Ritter, who has owned the cafe since 2005. The spill “was a godsend.”
The CP train derailed on farmland north of town in March. Three tanker cars leaked, “affecting a ditch and a field,” according to an MPCA report on the spill. The railroad estimated that 15,000 gallons of heavy crude oil leaked.
Crews pumped oil into other railcars, built a berm to contain the mess and sopped up oil with blankets and wood chips, the report said.
Many people drinking coffee and eating doughnuts in the cafe last week praised the crews, who hailed from as far away as Texas, for their cleanliness and politeness. “Plus,” Ritter said, gesturing at a table full of men in baseball caps, “it gave those guys something to talk about.”
The group gathers at the cafe each day at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. On a recent Thursday, the table filled by 2:58. The men, most of whom are retired, sometimes debate proposed oil pipelines, which are seen as an alternative to rail transportation. Most of the men back that idea, said Justen Ritter, Alice’s grandson. But he believes it’s not a question of transportation: “The sooner we can move away from oil, altogether, the better.”
From his kitchen window, Ralph Jahnke, 88, counts the crude oil cars as the trains pass, rattling his duplex and jiggling the curtains. There were 16 on a train, 50 on another. One day, 85. The numbers are growing, Jahnke said.
He believes the busy rail lines hint at a healthier economy. “It shows that the United States is still here,” Jahnke said.