As U.S. Sens. Al Franken and Tammy Baldwin spoke Wednesday about oil train safety outside the Firefighters Hall and Museum in Minneapolis, their voices were silenced by the roar of a slow-moving train that local residents said they recognized as carrying the very oil they fear endangers their neighborhoods.
Franken and Baldwin, Democrats from Minnesota and Wisconsin, respectively, listened to firefighters, city mayors and rail safety activists from the two states and vowed to continue pressing federal regulators and rail companies to improve safety while securing funds to improve grade crossings and help emergency responders in the event of an incident.
Industry representatives say the issue is being unfairly politicized. “The primary concern of the railroad industry is safety,” said John Apitz, lobbyist for the Minnesota Regional Railroads Association.
He cited more than $500 million spent by railroads in Minnesota and $15 billion nationwide on infrastructure improvements this year on tracks and other equipment that will make the trains safer. The industry also is paying for firefighters and other emergency personnel to attend a training academy in Colorado to prepare them for an incident.
Apitz said the more than 325,000 Minnesota residents who live near an oil train route can feel safe.
The activists, firefighters and legislators gathered at the fire hall remain unconvinced. Franken and Baldwin say there have been at least six major accidents in North America in the past seven months.
State Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, said despite a 2014 law requiring rail companies carrying flammable material to disclose emergency plans to the Pollution Control Agency, the public does not have access to the information. He held up a “worst-case scenario” railroad plan that had been entirely redacted.
Industry officials say that’s a safety precaution, lest they provide a road map for sabotage or even terrorism.
Franken and Baldwin say they will continue to fight for provisions that passed a Senate transportation bill that would step up rail safety efforts by requiring more disclosure from the rail companies.
A major rail safety proposal by Gov. Mark Dayton failed to gain traction in the Legislature this year.