Locals talk rail safety specifics
Locals were ready with their ideas and concerns when Gov. Mark Dayton visited Red Wing Tuesday with state representatives and officials to talk about oil train safety.
From requests for more training to changing penalties for rail company violations, attendees from Red Wing, Goodhue County, Wabasha County and other nearby areas offered many specific suggestions during the meeting, the third the governor has held throughout the state on the topic.
Penned between the bluffs and river, Red Wing has rail lines running near key areas of town, Mayor Dan Bender said.
“Any kind of accident or derailment would be a major disaster in the city of Red Wing,” he said.
Bender emphasized the need for more training and drills to prepare emergency personnel for dangerous situations stemming from transporting oil on rail lines through the area.
Public Safety Commissioner Ramona Dohman said the state is working on a training program to be rolled out next month. The training is part of a set of new laws passed and signed during the last legislative session that also include more safety inspections, prevention and emergency response plans from railroad companies and improving response capacity for emergencies.
Dayton said personnel should tell the state after that training if it’s enough.
Red Wing Police Chief Roger Pohlman suggested the state could increase penalties for rail issues such as blocking roads or problems on the line.
“It doesn’t seem like our penalty fits what could result,” Pohlman said, noting penalties are as low as $50.
Red Wing Fire Chief Tom Schneider had a number of suggestions as well, including focusing on prevention for emergencies, possibly requiring regional response teams from the rail companies and looking at whether the volatility of the Bakken oil could be reduced at the point where it’s extracted.
Dohman said the state is working to find out where the gaps are in the system, talking with local law enforcement as well as rail companies about their equipment and resources.
Goodhue County Commissioners Ron Allen and Ted Seifert, who were in the audience, both raised the issue of pipelines, saying they would be a better alternative.
State officials said that is being discussed, but there still are tradeoffs. They also said given the amount of oil coming from the Bakken, which is expected to double in five years, likely both rail and pipelines would need to be used.
Train backups also were mentioned by many attendees, spurring concerns about safety, travel and transporting other goods.
Prairie Island Chief of Police Jon Priem said trains coming through the area sometimes block access to Prairie Island, especially if they stop for any reason.
“There’s no question that these oil trains are causing delays,” both for passengers such as Amtrak users and commerce transportation, said state Rep. Frank Hornstein, chair of the Transportation Finance committee in the House and sponsor of the new laws.
Red Wing Council member Peggy Rehder had raised the question of whether high speed rail would suffer from those plights as well if it used the same existing lines.
Dayton said the state also should look at ways at least to cover the costs it’s incurring, especially because “we don’t derive much economic benefit” from oil trains traveling through the state.
“We are the freeway for this oil,” Dave Christianson of MnDOT said.
Officials also discussed plans to evaluate crossings’ safety and said the state did allocate some funds for improving those.
Many who spoke, including Rep. Tim Kelly, emphasized the need to work with other stakeholders and governments on solutions.
Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle said the state is in contact with others in the region and with the federal government, which controls much of the rail industry’s regulations.
“It really isn’t separate worlds,” he said.
Rail safety has garnered attention recently as communities say they’re not equipped to handle major derailments, spills or other dangers from transporting Bakken oil on rail lines throughout Minnesota.
Events such as an oil train explosion in Casselton, North Dakota, have heightened worries.
“It’s not a hypothetical situation,” Hornstein said.
The state has a lot to do to be fully prepared for the impacts of this rail transportation, Dayton said.
“This is a whole new era,” he said, later adding “We’re just ridiculously behind the curve on what’s going on.”
While much of the talk centered on public safety issues, environmental concerns also were addressed and are being discussed as part of the process, state officials said.
After the discussion, Dayton said these local meetings have been important to hear from people “whose eyes are on the rail line.”
Dayton said it’s important to find out what’s needed, and then look at solutions, meet with rail companies about needs and explore legislation.
“We’ll have to be very aggressive,” he said, and should he be re-elected this fall he said this issue would be a major focus in the next legislative session along with other transportation needs.
Dayton ended the public meeting by saying “to be continued,” encouraging more talk and participation as the process moves forward. More similar discussions are planned in other Minnesota cities.