Rail safety program stripped from North Dakota budget

Repost from InForum, Fargo ND
[Editor:  See also AP coverage in The Bismarck  Tribune.  – RS]

ND Democrats slam Republicans for stripping rail safety program from budget

By Mike Nowatzki, Apr 8, 2015 at 7:09 p.m.
A plume of smoke rises from scene of a derailed train near Casselton, North Dakota December 30, 2013. REUTERS / Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service

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.

“That’s just a long way from over,” he said.