Trains have traveled through this part of Minnesota for just under 150 years, and as the small town of Staples grew around their tracks, railroads were virtually the only source of jobs for decades.
“Four hundred men used to work in these offices,” Tom Kajer, 75, head of the Staples Historical Society, said as he walked on the fiberglass – and plaster-littered floors of the original depot’s second story. “Now, zero do.”
Trains still make their way through town – between 70 and 100 every day, locals say – including several carrying volatile crude from North Dakota’s booming Bakken shale fields. The rumbling of the tank cars, about 110 or more on each train, stir mild worry among some here. They remember the fiery derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people last year and the near-miss near Casselton, N.D., in December.
Such dangers are on the minds of state lawmakers, too, as they consider legislation to make rail companies help pay to train and equip emergency responders. Proposed bills would assess a $1.25 million fee annually for as many as five years.
That kind of levy might ease the mind of Scott Braith, who commands Staples’ all-volunteer fire department of 25 people, even as he says nothing could get his force ready for a catastrophe on the order of Lac-Megantic.
“Not for something like that,” he said. “But it would help if the railroad was more proactive. They’ve never contacted us about the North Dakota oil and said, Here’s what you need to know. They should be working with us more closely. They could’ve sent a person or had something already set up in place. Maybe to them it’s just not that big a deal.”
As oil pipelines reach capacity, energy company officials are relying on railroads to transport Bakken crude to refineries east and south of Minnesota. Six to eight oil-tank trains travel through the state every day, said Dave Christianson, a senior planner for rail and freight with the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp., headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, and Canadian Pacific, based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, operate those trains.
Amy McBeth, a BNSF spokeswoman, and Ed Greenberg, a Canadian Pacific spokesman, both said their companies already regularly provide training for local emergency responders. Of the legislation, they said either that they hadn’t taken a position or were monitoring it.
Sen. Vicki Jensen, an Owatonna Democrat sponsoring the bill, said railroads aren’t fighting the bill.
“(They) have been on board since the beginning,” she said. “They want to make sure everything is safe, too. If something does happen, they want people to be ready and prepared.”
John Apitz, legislative counsel for the Minnesota Regional Rail Association, a trade group that represents BNSF and Canadian Pacific, said the association doesn’t oppose the legislation because it’s less burdensome than previous versions.
“It augments another fund that has an $8 million surplus,” Apitz said of an account fed by homeowners insurance that pays for firefighter training. “So we’re not totally certain what the additional fund would be used for.”
Stephen Lee, who manages the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Emergency Response Section, also said railroad companies should be doing more to educate and train community responders. Particularly in the wake of a federal warning earlier this year on the volatility of North Dakota crude and the vulnerability of some tankers to rupture. He said he and his colleagues consistently hear testimony that reflects the Staples fire chief’s concerns.
“Railroads providing training, showing every fire department and unit what to do and what not to do would be a great improvement,” Lee said.
McBeth, the BNSR spokeswoman, said the railroad has trained more than 730 first responders since 2009. “BNSF has long been committed to partnering with local emergency responders and we will continue those efforts,” she said.
Canadian Pacific trains don’t move oil through Staples, but Greenberg also said the railroad works with local responders elsewhere. He described in-person, on-the-ground conversations between company personnel and local firefighters and exercises and sessions the company conducts.
Kevin Reed, a branch director for homeland security within the state Department of Public Safety, said he understands Braith’s complaints.
“But in my 18 years doing this, this is the most engaged rail has been,” Reed said during a phone interview. “Bakken oil has caused us to sit down and talk.”
He said the department and railroad companies carrying the crude have been collaborating more than ever before, specifically during the last 16 months.
“We plan to get up to the Staples-Motley area in May or June” for a training, Reed said. “The good thing is we’re getting the ball rolling.”
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