Lawmakers Call For Stronger Oil Spill Response

Recent crude oil train catastrophes in North Dakota and Canada show that Minnesota needs to beef up its ability to protect its communities from similar disasters, a pair of lawmakers said Wednesday.

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) β€” Recent crude oil train catastrophes in North Dakota and Canada show that Minnesota needs to beef up its ability to protect its communities from similar disasters, a pair of lawmakers said Wednesday.

Against the backdrop of a large rail yard in St. Paul, Rep. Frank Hornstein and Sen. Scott Dibble outlined a bill they plan to introduce at the start of the upcoming legislative session that would impose a fee of about one-one hundredth of 1 cent per gallon of crude oil transported across Minnesota by rail or pipeline. The Minneapolis Democrats said the fee would raise $15 million to $30 million a year to help state agencies and local authorities with planning and training for potential oil spills.

The state's ability to respond to oil emergencies is "woefully inadequate due to a lack of preparedness and a lack of resources," Hornstein told reporters.

The drilling boom that's made North Dakota the country's No. 2 oil producing state behind Texas has led to a boom in crude oil shipments by rail, because existing pipeline networks can't handle the volume. The shipments involve long "unit trains" that typically haul around 100 tanker cars each to refineries elsewhere.

The legislators' proposal would require state agencies that oversee the industry to adopt stricter standards and stronger response plans than federal law requires, and provide funding for emergency response programs statewide. While the bill is aimed primarily at rail shipments, it also would require the state to develop response standards for spills on Lake Superior in case proposals to ship oil on tanker ships via the Great Lakes go forward.

Dibble and Hornstein chair transportation committees and said they plan to hold hearings on their bill soon after the session convenes Feb. 25.

An average of eight crude oil trains cross Minnesota every day, with around six of them going through the Twin Cities, said Dave Christianson, a senior planner for rail and freight with the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

"They're going to a wide range of refineries in the Chicago area, the Detroit area and into Canada and the East Coast," Christianson said.

Minnesota hasn't seen accidents on the scale of the fiery derailment near Casselton, N.D., in December that prompted the evacuation of about 1,400 residents or the explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, last July that killed 47 people. But a train dribbled about 12,000 gallons of crude oil this month along 68 miles of track parallel to the Mississippi River between Winona and Red Wing.

Federal officials have warned that the Bakken light crude from North Dakota might be more volatile than other types of oil. Accident investigators from the U.S. and Canada last month called on their governments to impose stricter safety rules and recommended that trains carrying hazardous materials avoid populated areas.

Routing oil trains away from populated areas isn't easy, Christianson said. The Twin Cities historically have been a hub for several railroads, he said, and the country's rail networks were largely designed to haul freight to cities.

"Pretty much anything going through the state has to go through the Twin Cities," he said. "It's pretty difficult to find a non-populated area to route trains in this state."

While a major spill in Minneapolis or St. Paul would be a disaster, they're more likely to happen in rural Minnesota where first responders have fewer resources, said Paul Blackburn, an attorney with the environmental group MN350 who's helping to draft the bill. But there's so much crude moving through the state that the proposed fee would raise "probably more than enough money than the state would need to have an effective strong spill response plan that would protect all Minnesotans," he said.

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