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Heitkamp calls for better support of first responders at train incidents

FARGO – Casselton’s fire chief has recently become a bit of a celebrity on Capitol Hill. It might not be a status he totally relishes.

Everywhere U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp goes, people ask her how Tim McLean and Casselton are doing since the Dec. 30 crude-oil train derailment and explosion just west of town.

“I’m sure he would rather not have that fame,” Heitkamp said at a news conference Friday at the Osgood Fire Station in south Fargo, with McLean and other firefighters standing behind her. “He’d rather go back to the days when everybody felt pretty secure, but that’s not the world that we’re in.”

In light of the Casselton derailment, Heitkamp announced Friday a bill that would study best practices for first responders dealing with flammable rail cargo.

The bill is titled the Railroad Emergency Services Preparedness, Operational Needs, and Safety Evaluation, or RESPONSE, Act, and it would call on the Federal Emergency Management Agency to form a panel focused on railroad incident first response.

Heitkamp said the bill would not appropriate any dollars for first responders, but she hopes that by studying best practices, it can lead to future funding.

“Once you have a plan and you see what the need is, you can make the case for more extensive assistance in the form of equipment, which is going to cost money,” she said.

Fargo Fire Chief Steve Dirksen called Heitkamp a “champion” for first responders, saying he’s been in contact with her almost constantly since the Casselton incident.

“She wants to make sure that we have what we need to take care of incidents in our communities when they occur,” Dirksen said. “The enormous increase in crude oil by rail has forced us to prepare in new and different ways.”

The number of rail cars carrying crude oil on major freight railroads across the nation has increased by more than 6,000 percent from 2007 to 2013, Heitkamp said in a release, citing the Association of American Railroads.

There are multiple agencies involved in the movement of hazardous materials, and also a growing national spotlight on the issue following major derailments in Casselton and Quebec, Canada, among others.

The FEMA committee would bring together all relevant federal agencies, emergency responders, technical experts and those in the private sector for a review of training, resources and unmet needs.

“We want everyone in the room actually having a discussion about what they’ve learned from investigating past accidents,” Heitkamp said. “We want them coming together, and we want them to provide that information to FEMA.”

Heitkamp also pushed for more pipelines, better mitigation methods to keep trains on the tracks – like positive train control and increased inspections – and a better understanding of the volatility of Bakken crude oil.

“They need to know what they’re working with,” she said, flanked by firefighters. “They need to understand how the product behaves.”

McLean thanked Heitkamp for her commitment to first responders since “that fateful day” in his hometown.

“We will always remember December 30th in Casselton, North Dakota,” McLean said. “This bill is important to making sure we are prepared to keep North Dakota communities safe.”

Erik Burgess
Erik Burgess covers city and county government for The Forum. He started as the paper's night reporter in 2012, after graduating from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. He was born and raised in Grand Forks, N.D., and also spent time interning at the Grand Forks Herald.  Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to
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