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Documents: Cass County has most oil-by-rail traffic in ND

FARGO – More than 40 trains, each a mile long, hauling 3 million-plus gallons of Bakken crude, pass through Cass County every week – the most crude-by-rail traffic in North Dakota, according to documents released Wednesday by state officials.

A May 7 executive order from the U.S. Department of Transportation forced major Bakken shippers to provide states with estimates of how much of the light crude moves through each county weekly, with updates when those volumes change by more than 25 percent. The order came after a year marked by several fiery accidents involving Bakken crude trains, including the Dec. 30 derailment near Casselton.

Railroads like BNSF Railway fought the public release of those documents in North Dakota and other states, pressuring state officials to sign a confidentiality agreement in exchange for turning over the information.

But on Wednesday, the State Emergency Response Commission – the state entity tasked with receiving shipment estimates – voted unanimously against signing that agreement and agreed the information must be released to the public. That decision came with the backing of the state Attorney General’s Office, which found no legal authority to withhold the documents.

The Forum obtained the document through an open records request. Officials in Minnesota cited an exemption in the state’s open records law that allows them to withhold “security information” when asked about the information.

Three railroads in North Dakota were required by the executive order to turn over estimates to the state: BNSF, Canadian Pacific Railway and Northern Plains Railroad, a regional short-line railroad.

According to their documents, BNSF moved an average of 40 Bakken crude trains weekly through Cass County in the first three weeks of June. An average of three CP trains moved through southwestern Cass County. Northern Plains’ track network does not extend to southeastern North Dakota.

Booming oil production in western North Dakota, combined with a lack of pipeline infrastructure, has pushed an unprecedented amount of crude onto the rails. A majority of the crude-by-rail shipments out of the Bakken bottleneck through Fargo-Moorhead before heading to Southern or East Coast refineries.

State Homeland Security Director Greg Wilz, who chairs the commission, said he was puzzled by the railroads’ hesitance to release such broad estimates: just the average number of trains that ran through each county in North Dakota on a weekly basis.

Local first responders likely won’t be surprised by those figures, he said.

“They watch the trains go through their community each and every day,” Wilz said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say, ‘Hey, that’s the second train today.’ ”

Several members of the commission questioned the value of the estimates to first responders – the documents detail no specific routes, shipment schedules or start and end points.

“The question that we probably should be asking is: Does this meet the requirements of what we need?” said commission member Fred Anderson of the North Dakota Industrial Commission.

But even with that level of detail, Cass County Emergency Manager Dave Rogness said it likely wouldn’t help local first responders better prepare for another crude-by-rail accident.

“We know that a hazard exists. We know it’s a hazard that’s present almost any day of the week in Cass County,” he said. “Any more detail of that information really doesn’t enhance our local capabilities.”

Rogness has been puzzled by the attention given to the railroads’ shipment estimates – and their hesitance to turn them over.

Instead, he said there should be more focus on providing training to first responders in rural areas of North Dakota, and ensuring first responders have access to the proper equipment to tackle a Bakken crude fire and offering more coordination between local emergency planners and rail providers.

Kyle Potter
Kyle Potter is an enterprise reporter at the Forum. He came to Fargo-Moorhead in May 2013 after stints at the Associated Press, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Minnesota Daily. 
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