Thankfully, it didn’t take long to evacuate the tiny town where the nation’s 24th oil train derailment in less than two years occurred Wednesday. More than 30 people living in or near Heimdal, N.D., made it safely away from the wreck’s billowing black smoke clouds after a BNSF train pulling 107 oil tank cars went off the tracks around 7:30 a.m.
But trains hauling 100 or more cars of notoriously volatile Bakken crude oil are often headed to far more populous areas, such as the Twin Cities, where they travel on rail lines adjacent to schools and residential back yards. A wreck like the one near Heimdal could potentially be a deadly disaster in a larger community, which is why state and federal policymakers should be doing everything possible to minimize the risk. It’s especially frustrating that the Republican-controlled Minnesota House has not embraced Gov. Mark Dayton’s call for new railway safety measures.
“We have 21,000 people living within a half-mile of (oil train) tracks,’’ said Coon Rapids Mayor Jerry Koch. “When you look at a town of 35 and then compare that to the scale of our communities and other communities along that line … . It could be catastrophic.”
It’s been nearly two years since the devastating July 2013 oil train wreck in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, served tragic notice of oil-by-rail’s risk. Forty-seven people died. Another oil train accident in December 2013 near Casselton, N.D., underscored the explosive hazards. Fortunately, there were no fatalities.
While accidents represent a tiny fraction of oil-by-rail shipments, the public safety risks inherent in just one accident make swift improvements imperative. Political stalemate over the more sensible option of transporting oil by pipelines means trains will continue to haul crude for some time. Neither the status quo nor incremental improvement is acceptable when one tank-car full of crude has the “energy equivalent of 2 million sticks of dynamite,’’ according to May 2014 Wall Street Journal article.
The U.S. Department of Transportation recently announced new rules to improve oil train safety. Key improvements include slower speeds, stronger tank cars and new advanced braking systems. But the replacement or upgrades to older, more puncture-prone tank cars should happen faster than the timeline the rules call for. It’s also questionable whether speed is reduced enough. Nor did the rules include measures to reduce crude’s volatility
At the state level, Dayton has called for $33 million in annual assessments over 10 years on major railroads to improve crossings and improve emergency preparedness statewide. The House proposal — a one-time, $5 million state appropriation to upgrade rail-grade crossing safety — is not a serious safety initiative. The dollar amount falls far short of what’s needed to upgrade just one crossing in Coon Rapids, said Koch, the community’s mayor.
More than 326,000 Minnesotans live within the half-mile danger zone of oil-train routes. Improving rail grade crossings wouldn’t eliminate the risk of derailments, but it would help reduce the risk of collisions with cars or trucks that can cause one. Minnesota has fortunately not yet had a fiery oil-train derailment. Now is the time to ask “What can we do?” instead of waiting for a tragedy and asking “What should we have done?”