Dayton alarmed about oil trains passing through downtown

A unit train travels through downtown Oct. 3. Credit: Photos by Sarah McKenzie

Gov. Mark Dayton had a phone conversation Thursday morning with BNSF CEO Carl Ice to discuss his concerns about an increase in oil train traffic through downtown Minneapolis.

He also said state rail inspectors have been directed to prioritize inspections on this stretch of BNSF track along with the 63 grade crossings along the line, which enters Minneapolis from the western suburbs, in a news conference following his phone conversation with Ice.

He said Ice told him the oil train reroute was necessary to allow for construction work to expand BNSF’s rail capacity in the region, but couldn’t provide a definitive timeline when construction would be completed.

Dayton sent a letter to Ice earlier this week detailing his concerns. According to the railroad’s most recent filing with Minnesota Homeland Security and Management, 11 to 23 crude oil trains are now traveling through downtown each week as part of a temporary reroute of rail traffic.

The oil trains travel along tracks that go under Target Field and cut through the North Loop and Nicollet Island. The trains also travel past Northstar Commuter trains.

Dayton cited information from the Minnesota Department of Transportation that estimates an additional 99,000 people are living within the one-half mile evacuation zone of crude oil routes — bringing the statewide total to 425,448 people living within an evacuation zone.

“I am deeply concerned by this new information, and especially that you did not inform me or my staff about this significant change in your operation, which puts an additional 99,000 Minnesotans at risk,” he wrote in the letter sent to Ice on Tuesday.

Dayton pressed the BNSF CEO to issue a public statement outlining when the reroute will end, reroute oil trains outside of downtown during Target Field events and extend first responder training programs to all communities along the new route, among other things.

He also asked for a progress report by the end of October.

Dayton said he told Ice he expected to be notified of significant rail operation changes in the future.

“There’s no reason for them not to be in communication with us about what they’re transporting through our state and through our cities,” he said.

Earlier this month Amy McBeth, a spokeswoman for BNSF, declined to specify how long the reroute will last this fall. She said the reroute is necessary to accommodate construction work on other parts of its rail network.

McBeth issued the following statement Thursday afternoon:

“BNSF Railway has a comprehensive safety program in place that allows it to safely move all commodities on all of our routes, including through the Twin Cities, and enhanced protocols for the movement of hazardous materials. We have a strong safety record and we continually work to improve it further. During their discussion this morning, the Governor told BNSF Railway CEO Carl Ice that he appreciated BNSF’s efforts to improve safety and the significant investments we are making in our infrastructure in the state.

On the route in question and all routes where we’re moving crude oil, like through the Twin Cities region, we reduce risk and increase safety through daily track inspections, the placement of additional trackside detectors to monitor rail car conditions and by operating at slower speeds.

For more than a year, BNSF has been notifying the state on crude volumes of a certain size and their routes and when they change by 25 percent. That includes notifications of crude oil shipped on this route in particular.

Volumes and routes can fluctuate for a number of reasons. In this case, BNSF has a major expansion project underway and reroutes for some traffic to accommodate that construction. In this morning’s call, BNSF CEO Carl Ice discussed BNSF’s ongoing efforts to safely move crude oil, as well as expansion projects to better serve customers in the state, and that BNSF will continue to notify the administration of significant changes in traffic and routes for crude oil.”