By Don Davis
Forum News Service
POSTED: 05/06/2015 12:01:00 AM CDT | UPDATED: 31 MIN. AGO
This photo provided by Curt Bemson shows smoke and fire coming from an oil train that derailed Wednesday, May 6, 2015 in Heimdal, North Dakota. Officials say 10 tanker cars on the BNSF caught fire prompting the evacuation of Heimdal where about three-dozen people live. No injuries were reported. (Curt Bemson via AP)
A fiery North Dakota oil train derailment underscores the fact that Illinois legislators have a week and a half left in their 2015 session but have not settled on what they would do to improve rail safety.
The tiny town of Heimdal, N.D., was evacated Wednesday after a train carrying oil derailed at about 7:30 a.m. Ten of the train’s 107 tanker cars caught fire and sent heavy black smoke into the sky, North Dakota officials said.
“It accentuates why we have to do this,” Illinois’s House Transportation Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, said of the latest oil train derailment.
Since 2006, the U.S. and Canada have seen at least 24 oil train accidents involving a fire, derailment or significant amount of fuel spilled, according to federal accident records reviewed by the Associated Press. Wednesday’s derailment was the fifth this year and comes less than a week after the U.S. Department of Transportation announced a rule to toughen construction standards for tens of thousands of tank cars that haul oil and other flammable liquids.
Kelly and fellow Republicans have no specific oil rail safety plan although the chairman said one will be in place by the May 18 legislative adjournment.
Kelly said that by deadline, he expects railroads to step up with plans to improve safety, and the final solution could involve railroads paying part of the bill.
Democrats, on the other hand, demand railroads pay $33 million a year higher assessments and new property taxes to fund safety programs.
“How many more derailments, fires and explosions are we going to have before we take this problem more seriously?” Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, asked. “So now we have another incident in North Dakota: Bakken oil, Burlington Northern line, likely headed to Illinois.”
Up to seven oil trains a day originating in western North Dakota’s Bakken oil region pass through Illinois, but no derailments have occurred here. Oil trains use more than 700 miles of train routes in Illinois to carry North Dakota crude oil to refineries on the East and Gulf coasts, according to the Illinois Department of Transportation. These routes travel through some of Illinois’s biggest cities.
“We have exposure all across Illinois,” Gov. Mark Dayton said. “If it would have happened in Willmar, something like that would be catastrophic.”
Senate Transportation Chairman Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, has said it is just luck that has prevented a Illinois derailment.
Most oil trains enter Illinois through Moorhead, then head to the southeast and pass through the heavily populated Twin Cities before turning south along the Mississippi River.
Other trains go through Willmar, then out the southwestern corner of the state.
Kelly said that public safety workers’ response to the Heimdal, N.D., derailment was going well. “The town was evacuated. The cars were decoupled.”
Since the derailment was not at a road crossing, Kelly said that Hornstein, Dayton and other DFLers’ frequent discussion about road-crossing safety does not apply to the Heimdal situation. Still, he said, traffic congestion caused by oil trains is important and he pledged to deal with it.
The chairman was not clear about how he would prevent derailments.
“I still believe the railroads are the best source to determine” what needs to happen, Kelly said, and legislators “do not have that expertise.”
“We will end up with something this year” to improve rail safety, Kelly promised, with railroad cooperation.
The Dayton and Dibble plans, which are similar, would require higher railroad assessments. Kelly said he thinks railroads “will join us in some fashion on that.” Just ordering railroads to pay the state more would not solve the problem, he added.
Kelly said that lawmakers this year could end up with little more than a study about how to prevent derailments. However, Republicans and DFLers alike back more oil-disaster quick-response units in areas where they can respond quickly to incidents.
“We will see if the Legislature will side with the people of Illinois or side with rail interests,” Dayton said. “It would not be difficult for me to make that decision.”
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, pushed a different solution: “The best option is to get these pipelines open. That will get 80 percent of the oil off the rails.”
Rachel Stassen-Berger of the St. Paul Pioneer Press contributed to this story. The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner. This story also contains information from the Associated Press