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Minnesota not ready for train fires as more oil tankers travel state rails

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Public safety authorities in Minnesota worry that emergency responders lack the training and equipment if a massive fire would be sparked by the growing number of oil trains traveling the state, and the legislature is preparing to address the problem.

The Star Tribune reports that eight oil trains of about 110 cars each pass through Minnesota every day, with six of them traveling through the populated metro area. "If one of them wrecks, state and local emergency responders don’t have the equipment needed to put out a catastrophic fire," the story said.

“We are ill-prepared for this,” state Rep. Frank Hornstein told the newspaper. He plans to introduce legislation in the upcoming session to address shortcomings in the state’s ability to face a catastrophe related to a massive fire sparked by the crude. It calls for state oversight of response planning for oil and hazardous substance spills and increases resources for first responders.

A series of explosions forced the evacuation of the town of Casselton, N.D. in December after several cars from a grain train derailed and crossed into the path of an oncoming oil train on a parallel track. No one was injured in the incident, but last year, 47 were killed in a small town in Quebec when a train carrying North Dakota crude oil crashed and exploded.

Federal officials have warned that the crude pumped in the Bakken region in North Dakota is more flammable — and therefore, more dangerous — than other forms of oil. A safety alert issued earlier this year by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration advised that crude from the oil shale patch in Montana and North Dakota poses a significant fire risk in an accident.

Fire-suppressing foam, rather than standard water hoses, are needed to extinguish raging tank-car fires. “There isn’t a fire department that has that much foam right now,” Jim Smith, assistant chief of operations for the St. Paul Fire Department, said in an interview with the newspaper.

Earlier this year, Minnesota 2020 had a map of the routes coming through the metro area. (below)

Earlier this year, KARE reported the Minnesota Department of Public Safety brought in a team from Texas A & M University to provide specialized training in oil car fire response. The training included specifics of how Canadian shale oil differs from North Dakota crude when it burns.

"We want to be able to respond to any oil, flammable or non-flammable, and make sure that local fire department understands, by looking at the containers, by looking at manifests, to give us the information on how to support them," Kevin Reed, Minnesota's Director of Homeland Security and Operations, told KARE.

He said most local fire departments have a general idea of what is being shipped on rail lines in their communities, but wouldn't know precisely what they face until they hear from the railroad and emergency management personnel. BNSF and Canadian Pacific, have firefighting capabilities and work with local fire departments on emergency response efforts.

But some Minnesota officials say first responders need their own capability to fight a fire involving multiple tank cars in a populated area. About 1,000 cars loaded with crude leave the Bakken oil field every day, according to the North Dakota Pipeline Authority. That’s 15 times the amount shipped by rail from North Dakota three years earlier.

On Thursday, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on transportation will hold a hearing on rail safety, and a House committee will follow with a hearing later this month.

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