As North Dakota's oil production booms, Minnesota lawmakers continue to call for more rail safety, including reducing the volatility of the millions of gallons of crude oil that's loaded onto train cars and carried through the state each day.
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton sent a letter to North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple Tuesday urging him to support efforts to make oil from the Bakken Fields safer to transport. In the letter, Dayton says Minnesota is "one of the primary routes" for Bakken oil being transported from North Dakota, noting the state's residents receive little benefit from the oil trains, but experience an increased risk of derailment, The Associated Press reports.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) says, on average, seven oil-carrying trains pass through the state daily, with as many as six through the Twin Cities. Each train carries about 3.3 million gallons of oil among 110 loaded cars. Reports obtained by the Star Tribune in July show as many as 50 trains carrying crude oil pass through about 39 of the state's 87 counties each week, with almost all of them going through the Twin Cities.
State lawmakers have been urging for more rail safety oversight in the wake of at least 10 major accidents during the last 18 months, including a high-profile incident in Quebec in July 2013, which killed 47 people. Other trains carrying Bakken crude oil have derailed and caught fire in Alabama, Virginia and North Dakota, The Associated Press says.
In the letter, Dayton told Dalrymple he appreciates his leadership to ensure "the maximum feasible safety measures are in place" for people who live along Bakken oil train routes.
This comes as North Dakota's Industrial Commission is considering new regulations because a number of officials, citing recent studies, say Bakken crude oil is more volatile than other crude oils, MinnPost reports. New regulations could require companies to remove certain liquids and gasses from crude oil shipments, which many believe would make transport safer, The AP notes.
However, the oil industry objects to these new rules, saying it has proper regulations to safely send crude oil by rail, citing a study funded by the North Dakota Petroleum Council that shows Bakken crude oil isn't any more dangerous than other light crude oils, the Bismarck Tribune reports.
Crews don't know the chemicals they're hauling
The U.S Department of Transportation (DOT) oversees the safety of cargo that's transported on railways, requiring companies to identify if the product being shipped is hazardous or flammable. This allows first responders to know what they're dealing with in the event of an accident or derailment.
However, this isn't always done – and it's something the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has been aware of for years. An investigation by MPR News found that trains leaving Minneapolis often left with undocumented hazardous cargo, which puts the residents in towns the trains travel through at greater risk should an accident occur.
Complaints from train crews filed with the FRA, which were obtained by MPR News, show that at least 18 times in the past three years BNSF Railway freight trains – the largest freight hauler in the state – left Minneapolis with hazardous chemicals that weren't on the official cargo list – something that's required by federal regulations.
MPR News found that when federal inspectors checked a train's manifest – which lists the cargo and which cars are carrying hazardous materials, as well as their position in the train – over a three year period in Minnesota, one in five contained inaccurate information.
If a train derails or is involved in a crash, firefighters arriving at the seen look for the train manifest. If it's incorrect, "you're sending fire and rescue in there, and they have no idea what they're getting in to," a BNSF employee told MPR News on a condition of anonymity. "And they could literally walk into an extremely deadly situation."
Although the majority of trains carrying hazardous cargo make it to their destination without incident, officials told MPR News incorrect manifests pose "unreasonable risks to health, safety and property."
Rail vs. pipeline
The majority of crude oil produced in the United States is transported via railway, truck or barge, instead of by pipeline – a method many believe to be safer.
This is because there's not enough capacity in the country's pipelines to transport the amount of crude oil that's being extracted from the ground, according to a report released Monday by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). As a result, oil is being transported on what's already available – railroads, trucks and barges.
Oil from North Dakota began being shipped by trains in 2008 when the state reached capacity for pipeline shipments, The AP says.
MinnPost notes while oil production boomed, investment in new, higher-capacity pipelines hardly increased.
Although there have been less reported fatalities when it comes to transporting materials through pipelines versus railways and trucks, there are drawbacks to transporting oil via pipeline, GAO notes. Historically, pipelines were smaller and operated at a lower pressure, which posed less of a risk compared to the long-distance. An increase in size and pressure to the pipelines could affect a greater area if an incident should occur, GAO says.
As a result, GAO has encouraged the U.S. Department of Transportation to propose rules that will address the safety of newer pipelines and revise its pipeline safety regulations.
Some crude oil pipelines through Minnesota have been scrutinized due to environmental concerns.