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ND officials work on plan to set up state-run railroad inspection program

Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak

BISMARCK – North Dakota officials say they hope to bring to the Legislature next year a plan to create a state-run railroad inspection program to better monitor the heavy crude-by-rail traffic leaving the Bakken oilfields.

Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak has been working out a possible plan with Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who told The Forum he’d likely support it in his own budget recommendations.

By the end of July, Fedorchak said she hopes to iron out the size, scope and cost of such a program so a plan can be submitted to the governor’s office for inclusion in a budget for the 2015 session.

Thirty other states run their own railroad inspection programs, allowing each state to add its own inspectors who are trained and certified by the Federal Railroad Administration, the nation’s primary railroad regulator.

North Dakota has left inspections of tracks, tank cars and rail-loading facilities to railroad companies and federal agencies, whose ranks in the region haven’t grown even as crude-by-rail shipments out of the Bakken have increased from fewer than 100,000 barrels a day in 2010 to 800,000 barrels per day late last year. More than 40 mile-long trains, each hauling 3 million gallons of Bakken crude, pass through Cass County each week, according to documents released by the state Wednesday.

The explosive derailment near Casselton on Dec. 30 was a wake-up call for state officials, regulators and lawmakers to just how much oil is being shipped by rail, how volatile Bakken crude may be and what little has changed to oversee its transport.

Starting a state program wouldn’t decrease federal inspectors’ presence in North Dakota, but it would put “more eyes on the job,” Fedorchak said.

And while railroads also regularly inspect their own tracks, the governor said state inspectors could serve as additional oversight.

“If there’s something that we can do at the state level to make it more likely that trains are going to stay on the track, we certainly want to go there,” Dalrymple said.

If the PSC moves forward with a state-run inspection program, it will need to be approved – and perhaps paid for – by the Legislature.

The 30 states that have their own programs fund inspectors by assessing railroads a fee, or through a combination of fees and public money. Fedorchak said it’s too early to say whether that may be an option in North Dakota.

When state officials first started considering a program earlier this year, Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, told The Forum he thought it could win the support of his colleagues in Bismarck.

After a year marked by several fiery train wrecks involving Bakken crude, “everybody is afraid something is going to happen in their town,” Wardner said in March. “We do need to take the extra step to make sure the oil … and whatever is on the rails is transported safely.”

Dalrymple said he thinks he could get lawmakers on board.

“If we can show the Legislature that we can make a difference, I believe they will approve it,” he said. 

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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