The map above Alene Tchourumoff’s desk shows lines that appear, at first, to denote rivers — they sprawl and branch off, weaving and curving across the state.
Instead, they depict a vast network of railroad tracks.
In her new role as Minnesota’s rail director, Tchourumoff will refer back to the map often as she leads Gov. Mark Dayton’s efforts to improve rail safety, train first responders and track the movements of the rail cars that transport Bakken crude oil and other hazardous freight.
While the federal government is the chief regulator of rail safety, Minnesota’s state agencies also have some oversight, spanning the departments of public safety and transportation and the pollution control authority. Concerned that the state needed better coordination of its efforts to monitor oil train issues, the governor created the position of rail director this spring.
The Dayton administration wanted someone “who could look across all those agencies and help bring those different threads together to help be a point of contact and drive and promote the decisions on rail-related issues,” Tchourumoff said.
States around the country are trying to assert more oversight of oil trains following high-profile derailments — the latest in Mosier, Ore., where a train hauling Bakken crude ran off the tracks last Friday and caught fire. One hundred people evacuated the town.
Tchourumoff hopes to be a point of contact for citizens worried about the potential for dangerous crashes from the oil trains rumbling through their communities. And she wants to organize more forums and round tables on rail issues.
“This gives [citizens] another opportunity to reach the governor’s office and help provide us with insight [into] what their concerns are,” said Tchourumoff.
States step up role
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order in 2014 for the state’s multiple agencies to assess their disaster preparedness for oil- and ethanol-related incidents.
Tchourumoff sees the possibility of taking lessons from New York and other states that are examining oil train issues.
Can state officials make much of a difference, given the federal government’s vast jurisdiction over the industry? Tchourumoff believes they can.
“I think there’s definitely a role for the state to play,” she said.
Tchourumoff, who started the position in early May, previously served as director of the planning department for Hennepin County Public Works, leading the county’s freight rail planning efforts. She has also been a manager for Deloitte Consulting in Washington, D.C., advising the Federal Railroad Administration on rail program implementation and financing. And Tchourumoff has advised the mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, the California High-Speed Rail Authority, and Dallas Area Rapid Transit on rail policy and finance issues.
The state’s commissioners of transportation and public safety praised Tchourumoff’s appointment, saying they’ve already started conversations with her about their efforts on rail issues.
“All of us realized we needed more expertise and people close to the issue who could speak with authority and have direct access to … the governor’s office,” said Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle.
‘She jumped right in’
Hennepin County Emergency Management Director Eric Waage recalled her attending a meeting with emergency managers, first responders and railroad officials at the start of her job.
“She jumped right into the fray,” he said.
The discussion revolved around local responders’ push for railroad companies to turn over more disaster planning records. They want to coordinate a more detailed response plan in the event of a hazardous explosion. After a proposal to address the matter stalled at the Capitol this session, responders and the railroad industry have been meeting to work out a compromise without legislation.
Minnesota railroad lobbyist John Apitz, who attended the meeting, said he is excited about Tchourumoff’s appointment and that they had already started discussing the issue of sharing information with first responders. In the long run, he hopes to work with her on using railroads to foster economic development.
“This is the first time that there’s kind of been a single focal point for all those conversations,” said Apitz, who represents the Minnesota Regional Railroads Association. “Quite often in the past, one agency didn’t know what the other agency was doing and it was confusing for the railroads as to who you were dealing with.”
She noted that the slowdown in the North Dakota oil fields “alleviates some of the immediate congestion concerns.” But even with the decline, she added, there’s still up to 55 oil trains a week that pass through Minnesota.
There’s less immediate risk of a derailment, she said, “but I still think it’s something we need to think about and really plan for.”