City resolution issues call to action on rail safety

State Rep. Phyllis Kahn at a press conference on rail safety at City Hall. Credit: Photo by Sarah McKenzie

City leaders are pushing for more action from the federal government and railroad companies to safeguard communities from the potential dangers of oil trains traveling through Minneapolis.

A City Council committee passed a resolution Tuesday urging Congress to take more aggressive steps to enhance railroad safety and the Minnesota Legislature to authorize funding for improvements to rail infrastructure.

It also calls on railroad companies hauling crude oil, ethanol and other hazardous materials through the city to have regularly scheduled discussions with city officials to improve communication with first responders and the public and expedite the public disclosure of worst case scenario oil spill response plans.

While the city has limited power to influence the operations of the railroads, it is following the lead of other cities like Seattle and Portland that have passed resolutions calling for more transparency and accountability from railroad companies.

The full Council will vote on the resolution authored by Council Members Kevin Reich, Linea Palmisano and Lisa Bender on Nov. 20.

Peter Wagenius, policy director for Mayor Betsy Hodges, said “many hands” were involved in drafting the resolution, including state Rep. Frank Hornstein and Citizens Acting for Rail Safety-Twin Cities.

“On the one hand we don’t want to set the expectation that the City of Minneapolis unilaterally can do anywhere near what we would like to do, but on the other hand we’re not powerless and it’s important for us to be part of collective action with other cities,” he said.

Reich, who represents neighborhoods in Northeast, said the goal is start a dialogue with the railroads to do some serious problem solving.

“These issues aren’t abstractions — they certainly aren’t in my neck of the woods with 600 contiguous acres of rail activity,” he said. “This is an invitation to have sincere peer-to-peer conversations.”

Palmisano, who previously worked in disaster recovery planning for IBM, said “planning is incredibly important.”

“It mitigates risk and helps us be more resilient. That is the role I think we play at the city level, and communication is greatly needed,” she said.

The call to action from city officials comes as downtown Minneapolis is experiencing a temporary increase in Bakken oil train traffic along tracks that travel under Target Field and through Nicollet Island.

The temporary reroute prompted Gov. Mark Dayton to contact BNSF CEO Carl Ice to express concerns in late October. Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar also sent a letter to Ice on Tuesday calling for the railroad company to increase communication with state and local officials to boost safety.

The BNSF reroute has 11 to 23 oil trains traveling through downtown each week.

“Moving oil trains to a new route has major safety implications for communities along rail routes,” Franken and Klobuchar wrote in the letter. “That is why it is critical for state and local officials to be given sufficient notification of where and how frequently trains are running. Officials use this information to allocate limited resources. State rail inspectors prioritize inspection of known crude-by-rail corridors. In addition, officials target special safety training for first responders at communities near oil train routes. When rail carriers fail to provide timely notification of routing decisions, state and local officials cannot respond appropriately, which puts communities at unnecessary risk.”

Two recent derailments in Wisconsin have also brought a new sense of urgency to the issue. An ethanol train derailed on Saturday near Alma and one carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in Watertown on Sunday.

At a press conference at City Hall following the vote on the rail safety resolution, state Rep. Phyllis Kahn (DFL-60B) said she’ll be pushing for a transportation bill during the 2016 legislative session that includes more funding for rail infrastructure improvements. She also said oil producers should be required to reduce the volatility of Bakken oil before it is shipped via rail.

Gayle Bonneville, a member for Citizens Acting for Rail Safety (CARS) Twin Cities who lives near Shoreham Yards in Northeast, said life along the rails has become unbearable.

“This is not about pitting communities against one another,” she said. “Instead, this resolution is an opportunity to collaborate to improve conditions for all. Unless and until we can make progress on increasing freight rail safety and ensure that transparency by railroad corporations is a reality, we need a moratorium on the transport of hazardous materials via rail.”

Cathy Velasquez Eberhart, another CARS members, said the group will be pushing for similar resolutions in St. Paul and other Minnesota cities.

Hornstein, a DFLer who lives in Linden Hills and a leader on rail safety issues, has also raised concerns about the failure of several railroad companies to submit adequate prevention and response plans as required by law to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The MPCA has requested updated plans from BNSF, Canadian National Railroad, Canadian Pacific, Union Pacific and Twin Cities & Western. State law requires the railroads to provide detailed information about how they would handle worst case scenarios in the event of a derailment, among other things.

MPCA Emergency Team Manager Jane Braun said BNSF, Canadian Pacific, Union Pacific and Twin Cities & Western have been granted extensions to comply with the requirements. Canadian National didn’t request more time so its updated plan was due Tuesday.

Amy Mcbeth, a spokeswoman for BNSF, which transports the most Bakken crude oil through the state, said the railroad company is already doing much of what has been outlined in the resolution, including training more than 2,200 Minnesota first responders in the last two years, reducing speeds and working to get safer tank cars on its system sooner, among other things.

“BNSF Railway and the rail industry have a strong record of safety and we continually work to further reduce risk. We’ve been listening to the community and meeting with local officials and first responders, and we’ve already taken several additional steps over the last two years,” she said.