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Oil trains' dangers fuel debate at Minn. Capitol

ST. PAUL-The Canadian Pacific and BNSF railroad tracks have run through the Twin Cities for years, but it's a recent cargo that's bringing them new scrutiny: North Dakota oil.

ST. PAUL-The Canadian Pacific and BNSF railroad tracks have run through the Twin Cities for years, but it's a recent cargo that's bringing them new scrutiny: North Dakota oil.

Dozens of trains loaded with oil pass through Minnesota each week, many of them through the Twin Cities, carrying their product from North Dakota's Bakken oilfields to refineries to the south and east. In the wake of disasters such as the Lac-Mégantic incident, when a train loaded with Bakken oil derailed and exploded in the middle of a Canadian town, some lawmakers say more needs to be done to ensure safety.

"These oil trains coming through our communities is a huge, real and increasing safety concern for our districts and for our cities that needs a solution now," state Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said in a recent floor debate.

An estimated 325,000 Minnesotans live within a half-mile of a track carrying North Dakota oil-the evacuation zone that federal officials establish around a burning oil train. Many of those people are in the Twin Cities, where oil train tracks run through Robbinsdale and North Minneapolis, along the Mississippi River through Anoka, Coon Rapids and Fridley, Northeast Minneapolis, past Lake Como and Battle Creek Indian Mounds Park and south along the Mississippi River to Hastings.

How much should people who live near these tracks worry?

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A 2014 study by the state Department of Transportation didn't address the chances of a derailment but noted that Bakken oil is sufficiently volatile that the "continuing presence of crude-by-rail shipments within Minnesota" poses "long-term risks" that the state and railroads need to manage.

Railroad companies say there's little cause to worry.

John Apitz, legislative council for the Minnesota Regional Railroads association, said "99.998 percent of all hazardous materials that railroads carry arrive at their destination safely," a category that includes not just oil but other hazardous materials railroads have carried for years with less publicity.

The union representing railroad engineers broadly agreed, though its representative expressed more concern.

"Regardless of what we may carry on any given day, we're operating safely and efficiently," said Phillip Qualy, Minnesota state director for the United Transportation Union and a railroad conductor for 35 years.

But while he said the conductors "want to guard against needless alarmism," Qualy said the "risk assessment is much higher" with frequent oil trains passing through the area.

Members of both parties don't necessarily disagree on the need for improvements-but they don't agree on the best solution.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and DFL lawmakers have proposed taxing the railroad companies to pay for rail-safety improvements, particularly at road crossings.

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"One of the things we can do is to make our grade crossings safer," said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis. "This should not fall on our taxpayers alone. It should be shared by the very profitable railroad companies."

The railroads aren't fans of that idea. Neither are Republican lawmakers.

"Let's not forget, railroads are trying to work with us," said state Rep. Mark Uglem, R-Champlin. "Railroads have increased track safety inspections. They've got an incredible amount of money going into capital improvements for safety."

In 2015, Apitz said, major railroads will spend around $500 million on maintenance and upgrades in Minnesota, which compares with about $100 million to $200 million in a typical year. The bulk of that increase is driven by BNSF, the state's busiest oil-train operator, which is spending $326 million this year.

Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party legislators have focused on the need to improve crossings, where motorists and trains can collide.

"It takes just one, just one vehicle to crash into an oil train and you have a disaster in our communities," Marquart said.

Apitz said that those accidents, while real and often deadly, aren't the kind likely to lead to full-on derailments because trains are so much larger than most motor vehicles.

"The concern is a broken track, a worn-out tie, ballast that for some reason needs to be replaced," he said.

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The DFL-controlled Senate has approved a transportation bill containing a tax on railroad companies to pay for safety improvements; the Republican House's bill does not contain that tax. Representatives of both chambers will try to negotiate a compromise measure in the coming weeks.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service

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