N.D. hires BNSF manager as inspector for state rail safety program
By Mike Nowatzki, Forum News Service, August 10, 2015
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.
ND Democrats slam Republicans for stripping rail safety program from budget
By Mike Nowatzki, Apr 8, 2015 at 7:09 p.m.
BISMARCK — Democrats slammed House Republican budget writers Wednesday for stripping a proposed state-run rail safety program from the Public Service Commission budget, calling it a broken promise that leaves residents at risk of more accidents like the fiery oil train derailment near Casselton in 2013.
The House Appropriations Committee voted 16-5 late Tuesday to approve a PSC budget that cuts about $970,000 for two rail safety inspectors and a rail safety manager to complement efforts by the Federal Railroad Administration in the next biennium.
The Senate approved the funding when it passed Senate Bill 2008 by a 46-0 vote in February.
Rep. Ron Guggisberg, D-Fargo, stressed the importance of the positions given the skyrocketing increase in crude-by-rail traffic in North Dakota and across the country.
Nationwide, crude-by-rail shipments increased from an average of 55,000 barrels per day in 2010 to more than 1 million barrels per day in 2014, with Bakken crude making up 70 percent of last year’s volume, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
“This is where it’s coming from, so we need to set an example and make sure it’s safe,” Guggisberg said.
Rep. Roscoe Streyle, R-Minot, said a state rail safety program is unnecessary. He said the FRA has increased its presence in North Dakota in recent years, and BNSF Railway announced additional safety measures on March 27, including increased track inspections, better electronic monitoring of railcars and reduced speeds and other new operating procedures for trains carrying crude oil.
“I just don’t think having a couple of state inspectors running around out there is going to make a hill-of-beans difference,” he said.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Jeff Delzer, R-Underwood, indicated he feels a state program would be duplicative.
“The feds are already doing it. We’re just expanding government,” he said.
Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak, a Republican who touted the proposal during her successful election campaign last summer against Democratic state Sen. Tyler Axness of Fargo after he had advocated for a state-run inspection program, said she was disappointed the funding was stripped from Senate Bill 2008 but is hopeful it’ll be restored.
“I will continue to push for this,” she said.
Fedorchak said that while the FRA has 10 staffers in North Dakota, only two are rail inspectors, and they cover parts of South Dakota and Montana in addition to all of North Dakota — about 5,000 miles of track in total. A mechanical inspector also covers parts of Montana and Wyoming.
“The federal inspection program is spread too thin,” she said, adding the volume of hazardous materials moving on North Dakota rail lines demands the state step in and help the feds “on behalf of the citizens living next to this infrastructure.”
Streyle said some committee members also worried about a state-run program making the state liable in rail accidents, a concern Fedorchak said is unfounded and hasn’t been a problem in the 30 states that have their own rail inspection programs.
The committee rejected Guggisberg’s amendment to restore the rail safety positions. He said he now plans to bring a minority report when the bill reaches the full House, which if approved would fund the rail safety positions and three hazardous liquid inspector positions cut by the Senate. Those inspectors would oversee intrastate oil pipelines.
House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, said the issue will be sorted out in a House-Senate conference committee.
Repost from WDAZ TV, Grand Forks ND [Editor: By announcing these measures, BNSF is trying to put a happy face on continuing potential for train catastrophes. These measures won’t help much, and notice they still are expecting an oil industry “phase-out” of DOT-111 cars rather than an immediate ban. – RS]
BNSF trains slow down: Railway announces plans to improve safety measures for oil shipments
By April Baumgarten / Forum News Service, Mar 29, 2015 at 11:32 a.m.
Bismarck, ND (Forum News Service) – One of the top rail companies in the U.S. has announced steps to improve rail safety in North Dakota.
BNSF Railway Executive Chairman Matt Rose outlined plans recently with Gov. Jack Dalrymple to implement additional measures throughout the company’s national rail system. BNSF also informed its customers on Friday about the safety measures, according to a news release.
“Railroad operations, equipment and maintenance are critical elements in our overall goal to improve rail safety, and I commend BNSF for taking these significant steps,” Dalrymple wrote in the release. “At the same time, we must move forward on other important aspects of rail safety including the need for new federal tank car standards and greater pipeline capacity.”
BNSF began a move Wednesday to have all of its oil trains reduce speeds to 35 mph through all municipalities with 100,000 or more residents. The speed reduction is temporarily in place until its customers phase out DOT-111 tanks cars from service, BNSF spokesman Mike Trevino said Saturday. Phasing out of the older cars, which will be replaced by CPC-1232 railcars to meet federal safety standards, is expected to begin in May, and BNSF hopes to complete the process by the end of the year. When that happens, BNSF will reconsider the speeds.
The shipping companies, not BNSF, own the cars, so the railway company has to wait on its customers to make the transition to the newer cars. The move was a voluntary part of an agreement with the U.S. Department of Transportation, Trevino said.
“What we want to do is do what we can to improve the safety of our operation,” he said. “What we can do is slow those trains down in larger communities.”
Rep. Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, said it was good to see BNSF taking proactive action to address railroad and safety weaknesses, though there are other measures he would like to see rail companies consider.
“I think many of our rural communities would also argue that their lives are no less at risk,” he said.
The only city in North Dakota that would fall under the reduced-speed measure is Fargo. The state’s largest city had an estimated population of about 113,700 people in 2013, according to the U.S. Census. Bismarck, the second largest city, had 67,000. Grand Forks, which is a collector for train traffic at its switch station, was home to about 55,000 residents.
“That doesn’t do a whole lot to secure our other communities,” Mock said.
Slowing the trains down in all communities would reduce the amount of product BNSF could ship and would burn up time, Trevino said. It would also impact trains hauling other commodities, such as grain or anhydrous ammonia. He added the measures go beyond the federal standard.
“If you slow those trains all around the network, then that (network) becomes as fast as that train,” he said.
Residents in Grand Forks feel uneasy when they see the “iconic-black, cylindrical tanks,” Mock said. Fortunately, Grand Forks has a train junction for switching lines, and many trains are coming through at a slow speed, meaning risk of a derailment is greater in cities where trains are traveling at higher speeds.
Still, residents are still curious and ask, “what if.”
“When a person sees a train rolling through town that has those iconic-black tanks running a mile long, there is a little apprehension,” he said.
Rep. Andrew Maragos, R-Minot, said he was pleased when progress is made, adding he is comfortable with the governor’s response.
“If he feels the railroads are taking positive steps, that’s always good,” Maragos said.
Trevino said BNSF has also increased rail detection testing frequencies 2 ½ times federal standards, which tests the quality of the rail. It has also reduced tolerance for removing a car from a train for a potential defect, meaning the bar is set higher for a car’s quality and safety features.
For example, if a wheel is defective, it may be removed from the train immediately.
Both North Dakota and rail companies have come under fire after several oil trains have derailed across Northern America, the most infamous being the Lac-Megantic, Quebec, derailment in July 2013. A runaway Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway train carrying Bakken crude went off the tracks and exploded, killing 47 people and destroying the center of the city.
Closer to home, a BNSF train carrying crude hit a derailed grain train in December 2013 near Casselton, forcing it off the tracks and resulting in a fiery explosion. No injuries or deaths were reported, though a temporary evacuation was put into place. It was the fifth derailment near the city in 10 years, and another BNSF train with lumber and empty crude cars derailed in November.
Both trains used DOT-111 cars.
More recently, a CSX Corp. train derailed Feb. 16 near Mount Carbon, W. Va. Two Canadian National Railway Co. trains derailed in Ontario between February and March.
As a result, both Canada and the U.S. have looked into implementing measures to prevent disasters. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued orders to phase out the DOT-111 cars. While that is not expected to occur until May, Dalrymple urged U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in a recent phone call to issue the new tank standards “as soon as possible,” according to the release. Dalrymple also told Foxx that pipelines offer the safest mode of transporting crude oil to market.
Action in North Dakota
North Dakota has also attempted to tame the flames. The state Industrial Commission unanimously approved a requirement for all oil producers to install and utilize oil-conditioning equipment to reduce the volatility of Bakken crude. The order would bring the vapor pressure of every barrel of oil produced in North Dakota under 13.7 pound per square inch before it is shipped. Crude producers must comply starting Wednesday.
Dalrymple and the Public Service Commission have also proposed a state-run railroad safety program and pipeline integrity program “that would complement federal oversight in North Dakota,” according to the release. The proposal would cost North Dakota $1.4 million for three position to inspect railroad tracks. Another three state employees would inspect pipelines that transport oil and other liquids to market.
Dalrymple’s release also comes the same week the North Dakota House voted down legislation requiring the state Department of Transportation to report on rail safety issues to a legislative committee. Senate Bill 2293, sponsored by Sen. George B. Sinner, D-Fargo, proposed spending $6 million every two years to carry out committee recommendations, but was criticized by Republicans because was “an unnecessary, duplicative requirement” since DOT already conducts studies, Rep. Dan Ruby, R-Minot, told Forum News Service this week.
The House voted down the bill 34-55 on Monday. Mock was disappointed with the bill’s failure, stating it was “incredibly shortsighted for the Legislature to fail that measure.”
“The legislators owe it to the people back home to get these reports on a more timely basis — find out what companies, like BNSF, are doing and make sure we are updated on the progress of railroad safety enhancements.” he said.
Sinner said the release is likely a response to the press coverage of SB 2293’s failure, and voting the bill down was political. While North Dakota has started to address the issues, Sinner said the state needs to do more.
He pointed out that all the legislators that voted against the bill were Republican.
“(The Republicans) have not offered one bill on rail safety this Legislature,” he said. “We need to have a bipartisan effort on this issue. This issue is too important.”
Maragos, who also supported the bill, said the state is addressing safety issues as they come to light. While it was hard for him to say if what leaders are doing is enough, he feels the state is doing everything it can to prevent accidents.
“For some people, it is never enough,” he said. “For others, it’s pushing too hard.”
He added: “When we see that isn’t enough, we’ll just move in to improve or strengthen the policies.”
Making rail safety a priority
BNSF plans to invest more than $335 million in track maintenance and capital improvement projects in North Dakota this year, including in Dickinson, Jamestown, Devils Lake and Hillsboro.
There are many products that are shipped from the state across the continent, Mock said, and other states are looking to North Dakota for assurance that cargo is packaged correctly.
He pointed to a derailment in Minot, where a Canadian Pacific train carrying anhydrous ammonia derailed on Jan. 18, 2002. The incident released approximately 146,700 gallons of anhydrous, and a poisonous gas cloud hovered over the city, causing the death of at least one person and injuring more than 322 people, according to the National Transportation Safety Board report. The disaster also prompted an evacuation and caused more than $10 million in damages and environmental remediation.
Mock said had he not been allowed to leave work an hour early due to a slow night, he would have been caught in the fumes.
“Railroad safety is not just a Bakken crude issue,” he said. “The one state that should be taking railroad safety the most seriously is North Dakota, because our reputation is on the line.”
Like residents across the state, Mock would like to see more done. Railroad safety is a comprehensive issue that requires realistic standards, he said.
About 90 percent of North Dakota’s exports go out on rail, Sinner said. If a train carrying cargo from the state has an accident that could have been prevented, North Dakota’s industries will be affected, he added.
“The economic security of this state relies on the rail industry,” he said.
Maragos said the railroad companies are doing what they can to improve safety.
“With the amount of rail traffic and understanding that mechanical things break, even (BNSF), which is moving most of the oil, I think they are very sensitive to it, and I think they’re the best job they can in addressing safety concerns,” he said.
Trevino concurred, stating BNSF is doing everything it can to keep communities and its employees safe.
“We understand how to run our railroad,” he said. “We understand better than anyone the kinds of steps that can be taken to prevent loss, to mitigate potential loss, should an event occur, and respond to an event.”
Though Sinner is not sure to what extent, he said he plans to follow the issue closely and find ways to improve railroad safety.
“We need to do something with the increase in rail traffic and trains traveling around our state,” he said. “We need to make sure rail safety is a real priority.”
The Press was unable to contact Dalrymple on Saturday.