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Lawmaker says Minnesota in danger zone with ND oil boom

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The oil boom North Dakota is enjoying could put Minnesota in a dangerous position, which has state lawmakers saying there needs to be an increase in rail oil safety oversight.

Nine or 10 trains a day haul crude oil eastward from North Dakota's Bakken oilfields – seven or eight of those trains go through Minnesota, most through the heart of the Twin Cities, Dave Christianson of the Minnesota Department of Transportation told the House Transportation Committee on Wednesday, according to the Grand Forks Herald.

"We are at the geographic epicenter of this," said Chairman Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, of the House Transportation Finance Committee, according to the newspaper. "That places us right on the route for problems."

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With Bakken constantly expanding its output, on its way to 1 million barrels a day, Minnesota needs to prepare for potential disasters, Hornstein said, according to the Grand Forks Herald.

The push for increased safety and preparedness comes after oil trains in Canada and North Dakota derailed and exploded last year. Minnesota fire officials have said they aren't prepared to handle such disasters, MPR News reports.

"It seems to me there is a significant need for legislation," Hornstein said, according to the Grand Forks Herald.

Although rail officials said they are doing their part in making the transport of crude oil safer, including lowering train speeds in urban areas to 40 mph (which goes into effect July 1) and buying stronger tank cars, critics say that isn't enough.

Hornstein says more state rail inspectors are needed – right now, three federal inspectors cover all of Minnesota and western Wisconsin and there is one state inspector on staff. He also says local emergency officials need the state's financial help for training and equipment to deal with oil accidents, the Grand Forks Herald reports.

Officials with BNSF, the nation's second-largest railroad and the major carrier of North Dakota crude oil, said they do their own extensive rail inspections and have trained 830 Minnesota emergency responders in the last five years, according to the Grand Forks Herald. The railroad says it also has its own responders on staff in a time of emergency.

Bill Gandner of MnDOT said 1,138 track safety defects were found last year, with 141 of them considered serious, the Grand Forks Herald reports.

After hearing from state regulators, union leaders and railroad executives Wednesday, Hornstein said he plans to release a bill next week to improve Minnesota's ability to prepare for and fight oil disasters, the Grand Forks Herald says.

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