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N.D. hires BNSF manager as inspector for state rail safety program

Repost from the Billings Gazette

N.D. hires BNSF manager as inspector for state rail safety program

By Mike Nowatzki, Forum News Service, August 10, 2015
Train derailment
Oil tank cars not damaged in a train derailment near Culbertson are removed from the area on July 17, 2015. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

BISMARCK, N.D. – A manager for the railroad involved in two fiery oil train derailments in North Dakota during the past two years has been hired as the first track inspector for a new state-run rail safety program.

Karl Carson will go to work for the state Public Service Commission on Aug. 17, doing inspections to identify problems with track and worker safety.

A Minot native, Carson is a division engineer with BNSF Railway. He’s worked for the railroad since 1992, holding several positions including assistant director of maintenance production, in which he supervised maintenance and replacement of track and track components, according to the PSC. He’s worked in management for BNSF since 2004.

Commission chairwoman Julie Fedorchak said the PSC wanted an inspector with experience, and with only two major railroads operating in the state – BNSF and Canadian Pacific – hiring someone with connections to one of them was “just an unavoidable situation.”

She said she asked Carson during his interview “if he would have a hard time regulating his old friends, and he said, ‘Absolutely not.’”

“His experience helps him to understand where the strengths and the weaknesses are and will really help him engage directly with the railroad,” she said. “They know his experience and they know he knows what he’s talking about.”

North Dakota is the 31st state to partner with the Federal Railroad Administration on a state rail safety program. The FRA has primary responsibility for rail safety in every state.

The PSC began looking seriously at the need for a state program after the December 2013 derailment of a BNSF oil tanker train near Casselton, which caused a massive fireball and voluntary evacuation of the city. Six cars from a BNSF oil train derailed May 6 near Heimdal in east-central North Dakota. No one was hurt in either incident.

Carson’s new position is one of two approved by state lawmakers in April when they voted to spend $523,345 on the state rail safety program in 2015-17, with the intent of continuing the pilot program in 2017-19.

“We’re quite pleased with the caliber of the first inspector,” Fedorchak said. “He’s got more rail experience than I had hoped for, and I think in talking with other states, that was the key ingredient they emphasized.”

State Sen. Tyler Axness, D-Fargo, who first publicly suggested a state-run rail safety program in July 2014 during his unsuccessful campaign for the PSC, said he doesn’t necessarily disagree with Fedorchak that the pool of qualified applicants for the inspector job is probably limited in North Dakota, and he declined to make any judgments about the hire without seeing the pool of applicants.

But Axness and Wayde Schafer, conservation organizer for the Dacotah Chapter of the Sierra Club, both said it seems like the state has a pattern of hiring regulators with close ties to the industries they will oversee. Schafer said on such a contentious issue as rail safety, “it seems like they would want to hire somebody who was a little bit more neutral.”

“You’d think something this controversial, even the appearance of impropriety should be avoided whenever possible,” he said.

Don Morrison, executive director of the Dakota Resource Council, drew a comparison to the hiring of Lynn Helms, a former employee of Texaco and what is now Hess Corp. who now regulates and promotes the state’s oil and gas industry as director of the state Department of Mineral Resources.

“It certainly looks like business as usual, which is give the industry what they want,” he said. “Time will tell.”

Fedorchak said the PSC had 18 applicants for the job and interviewed the top five, with second interviews for the two finalists. She noted Carson was the “strong favorite” among the FRA inspectors on the interview panel.

Carson earned a certificate of completion in auto mechanics from Bismarck State College in 1990 and also served in the North Dakota Army National Guard from 1990 to 1994. He couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

His annual salary with the PSC will be $90,000.

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