Fearing that the influx of oil trains through the Twin Cities may one day lead to catastrophe, legislators and residents met this week to discuss best methods for holding railroad companies accountable.
Adding to the urgency is a proposal to route oil trains through downtown Minneapolis and the northwest suburbs, multiplying the number of people who would be impacted by an accident. That plan involves diverting oil trains south from Crystal through Theodore Wirth Park.
Five legislators, a county commissioner, a MnDOT representative, Minneapolis' fire chief and two city council members attended the meeting at Theodore Wirth Chalet on Tuesday night.
Rep. Frank Horsntein, DFL-Minneapolis, noted that a number of oil trains have already derailed and exploded across the U.S. this year.
“This is not a hypothetical problem," Hornstein said. "We know that this is going to get worse as more oil comes across our region.”
Hornstein and others touted a number of bills related to rail safety working their way through the legislature this year. One clarifies that railroad companies cannot exercise eminent domain powers over Hennepin County land. Another would annually assess railroad companies to pay for improved rail crossing safety.
Several speakers noted that St. Louis pushed successfully to stop oil trains from traveling through the city.
“I hate to say that we want to follow St. Louis, but it looks as if that’s a good way to start," said Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis.
Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel said his department would need additional help in the event of an oil train fire. He said he spoke with the St. Louis chief about how they pushed for a rerouting.
“He was very clear and told me it all started at this level right here," Fruetel said. "That it means a lot at the grassroots level for people to get organized.”
The Minnesota Department of Transportation recently estimated that about 326,000 residents live within the half-mile evacuation zone of oil trains -- half of them in the metro area. About six or seven oil trains pass through the Twin Cities every day, largely through the Como Park area, said MnDOT freight planner Dave Christianson. They also travel through parts of Northeast Minneapolis.
“If that oil train comes down Theodore Wirth Park, through Crystal and Robbinsdale and in downtown Minneapolis, we will increase the exposure in the state by 50,000 residents," Christianson said. "That doesn’t count the employees in downtown Minneapolis."
Christianson said the new connection -- intended to relieve rail congestion -- would mean about one and a half oil trains moving through downtown Minneapolis every day.
Gov. Mark Dayton sent a letter to the Surface Transportation Board last month requesting a full environmental impact statement on the proposed rerouting.
"This traffic would travel through downtown Minneapolis and residential communities that have not previously been exposed to such traffic," Dayton wrote.
Hennepin County recently spent $1.8 million to purchase a key parcel of land they hope will thwart the reroute plans.