Risky Rails — a special Journals’ report examining oil train safety. Find more stories at southwestjournal.com/risky-rails.
A proposal to reroute freight trains carrying volatile Bakken crude oil through Crystal and into downtown Minneapolis drew about 70 concerned area residents to a town hall meeting March 25 at Theodore Wirth Park.
BNSF and Canadian Pacific tracks cross in Crystal, and the two railroads have proposed connecting the lines to reroute some traffic south through Theodore Wirth Park and into downtown Minneapolis. The Hennepin County Board is attempting to block the reroute by purchasing a key parcel of land in Crystal, and legislators at the state capitol are also working to delay the project or shift the oil train traffic away from populated areas.
Rep. Frank Hornstein (61A), one of the first to take the mic inside the dimly lit Theodore With Chalet, described the oil trains coming out of North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields as “a perfect storm of problems”: more prone to explode in the case of derailment, hauled in “substandard” tanker cars and in so-called “unit trains” that sometimes stretch over a mile in length. With more oil traveling by rail, and after a string of accidents in the U.S. and Canada, a derailment here isn’t a hypothetical problem, Hornstein said.
“We really have a crisis here in Minneapolis and the northwest suburbs,” he said.
There have been no reported fatalities from an oil train derailment in the U.S. since 1990, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, but a 2013 derailment in Ontario that killed 47 people and other accidents resulting in explosions and fires have raised concerns about the safety of shipping crude by rail. In March, MnDOT released an estimate that more than 326,000 Minnesotans live within the half-mile danger zone of tracks that carry Bakken crude.
Dave Christianson, a senior planner with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said rerouting crude oil-hauling freight trains through Minneapolis would put an additional 50,000 people inside a potential evacuation zone. That’s just the number of people living near the proposed reroute; it doesn’t include the thousands who work downtown or visit to shop or take in a Twins game, Christianson added.
The tracks oil trains would follow if the reroute were completed are the same used by Northstar Commuter Rail and run beneath Target Field.
Christianson said crude from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota has “unique attributes” that make it especially likely to explode in a derailment, including a higher than usual content of gases mixed in with the oil. Christianson compared a ruptured tanker filled with Bakken crude to a butane lighter.
“That gas, all it needs is an ignition source … and you have an explosion,” he said.
On an average day, MnDOT reports, seven freight trains hauling crude from the Bakken oil fields cross the state, bound for refineries on the Gulf Coast and out East. Six of those trains pass through the Twin Cities. Each train transports about 3.3 million gallons of oil, the agency reports.
Christianson said train traffic is unlikely to slow even with the recent dip in oil prices. Just a few weeks into 2015, BNSF unveiled a $6-billion capital plan to expand its network and perform maintenance on existing lines. The railroad plans $326 million worth of improvements in Minnesota alone.
The concerns go beyond just derailment in the city of Crystal. The tracks cross near several busy intersections, and some in that city have expressed concerns that the extremely long trains will block traffic and slow emergency responders.
U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison noted both that issue and the larger safety concerns raised by a derailment in a March 4 letter to Debra Miller, chair of the Surface Transportation Board, requesting a full environmental review of the proposed track connection. Work on an environmental impact statement has the potential to slow the project or highlight potential risks that would stop it from going forward.
Hennepin County Board Member Linda Higgins said the county was close to securing a key parcel near the Crystal intersection after reaching an agreement with the property owner. That drew applause from the crowd in the chalet.
Higgins said the property owner was subsequently contacted by the railroads, who offered to “sweeten the pot to $2 million.” But he refused the offer, she said.
“We have a good partner in him,” Higgins said.
Several of the speakers noted St. Louis, Mo., officials last year secured an agreement with Union Pacific to route trains hauling Bakken crude around densely populated sections of that metropolitan area. Minneapolis Fire Chief John Fruetel said he’d recently contacted his counterpart in St. Louis to find out how they’d done it and was told it was a grassroots effort.
“He was very clear and he told me it started at this level right here,” Fruetel said.
No railroad representatives attended the meeting, but BNSF spokesperson Amy McBeth said in a phone interview that railroads are experiencing “wide growth across commodities … as the economy has recovered,” adding that congestion in the Twin Cities area is not driven solely by crude shipments, but also consumer products and record volumes of agricultural products moving across the state by rail. A “bottleneck” in the Twin Cites slows traffic across the system, also impacting Northstar Commuter Rail service, McBeth added.
She said the proposed reroute would include trains carrying all kinds of cargo — not just oil trains.
“The reason for the project is to reduce congestion and the result will be from a regional perspective fewer idling trains and fewer blocked (at-grade) crossings as we’re able to improve our fluidity through the region,” she said.
(Map courtesy of Citizens for Rail Safety-Twin Cities)