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North Dakota inspectors take on rail safety program

Investigators gather Friday, May 8, 2015, at the site of the oil train derailment and fire near Heimdal, N.D. Photo courtesy of the Office of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp

BISMARCK – Both inspectors for a state rail safety program — aimed to prevent such fiery derailments involving crude oil as happened this year near Heimdal — have been hired and are training with federal inspectors.

In July, an agreement was approved by the state’s Public Service Commission with the Federal Railroad Administration to begin a pilot rail safety program in the state. The program is to supplement the work of the several FRA inspectors assigned to North Dakota and several other states in the region.

Concerns over rail safety have stemmed from a more than 200 percent increase in shipments by rail since 2000. More than half of the state’s 1.16 million barrels per day of oil were moving by rail as of September, the most recent data available.

Lawmakers approved $523,345 from the rail safety fund for the program. Of this, $253,345 is for the salary of one inspector and $200,000 for a temporary employee. The remaining $70,000 is for operating costs. The pilot program is to last through the 2017-19 biennium.

“We’ll target ours a bit different. We’ll target them in areas where people live. They’ll be focusing on areas where trains pass through, large and small towns,” said PSC chairwoman Julie Fedorchak, adding she expects the staff to be out in the field about four days a week although time in the field could vary due to weather, especially in winter.

The inspector position was filled in August and the temporary employee was hired in November. Both will initially train under the FRA before working on their own.

With the expansion of the state’s rail and pipeline infrastructure taking several years or more to build out, the program might need to be continued long-term, said Fedorchak, who proposed a state rail safety program last year during the 2014 PSC race. Her opponent in the race, Sen. Tyler Axness, D-Fargo, did so shortly before her.

Axness said he was disappointed during the legislative session the original three full-time inspectors were reduced to one full-time and one temporary. He supports Fedorchak in making the temporary position permanent.

“If I get re-elected (in 2016), I would be more than happy to help her with that,” said Axness, who agrees the focus should be on populated areas and weak spots on the rails.

The slowdown in oil activity will help, according to Axness.

“This is the perfect time to see if there are those weak spots to deal with,” Axness said. “There’s a lot of track to catch up on. We need to make sure we’re finding those trouble spots.”

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