Tag Archives: Minnesota Sen. Al Franken

Asked for info on bridge conditions, railroad carrying Bakken crude tells cities no

Repost from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Asked for info on bridge conditions, railroad carrying Bakken crude tells cities no

By Lee Bergquist, Sept. 13, 2015
A flotilla of kayaks and boats and a small crowd onshore hold banners and beat drums Sunday to raise concerns about the transport by rail of oil through Milwaukee and across an aging railroad bridge at the confluence of the Menomonee and Milwaukee rivers near S. 1st Place.
A flotilla of kayaks and boats and a small crowd onshore hold banners and beat drums Sunday to raise concerns about the transport by rail of oil through Milwaukee and across an aging railroad bridge at the confluence of the Menomonee and Milwaukee rivers near S. 1st Place. | Michael Sears

Despite urging from a federal agency that railroads hand over more information on safety conditions of bridges, a carrier moving Bakken crude oil through Milwaukee says it doesn’t plan to provide such details.

Trains carrying Bakken crude go through downtown Milwaukee, leaving some residents afraid of what will happen if there is a spill. This train passes by the apartment of Brian Chiu on W. Oregon St. | Brian Chiu

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) distributed a letter from Sarah Feinberg, acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, in which the regulator urged railroad carriers to provide more information to municipalities on the safety status of bridges. Milwaukee officials have complained about the lack of information on the structural integrity of railroad bridges used by Canadian Pacific in the city.

“When a local leader or elected official asks a railroad about the safety status of a railroad bridge, they deserve a timely and transparent response,” Feinberg wrote.

“I urge you to engage more directly with local leaders and provide more timely information to assure the community that the bridges in their communities are safe and structurally sound.”

“CP’s position has not changed,” said Andy Cummings, a manager of media relations for the company.

“It is our policy to work directly with the Federal Railroad Administration, which is our regulator, on any concerns they have with our infrastructure.”

The exchange comes in the wake of growing concerns from communities along rail corridors used by railroads shipping a growing tide of oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota.

Those worries have been exacerbated by tanker accidents. The most notable is the July 2013 derailment of tankers that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. The tankers had been routed through Milwaukee before the accident.

There have been no accidents involving crude in Wisconsin, but on March 5 a BNSF Railway train derailed and caught fire near Galena, Ill., after leaving Wisconsin. Twenty-one tankers derailed. Galena is about 10 miles south of the border.

In Milwaukee, one bridge in question is a 300-foot-long structure, known as a steel stringer bridge, at W. Oregon St. and S. 1st St. The bridge was constructed in 1919, according to Bridgehunter.com, which keeps a database of historic bridges.

Canadian Pacific said on Sept. 1 that it would encase 13 of the bridge’s steel columns with concrete to prevent further corrosion and to extend the life of the columns. The carrier said last week that a protective layer of concrete will be applied late this month.

Since last spring, neighbors have expressed worries about the integrity of the bridge, and since July city officials have sought details on the condition of the bridge.

In addition to the threat to human safety, environmental groups such as Milwaukee Riverkeeper say about three dozen bridges cross rivers and streams in the Milwaukee River basin.

On Sunday, a flotilla of kayaks and canoes paddled at the confluence of the Milwaukee and Menomonee rivers to underscore the connection between trains and the city’s waterways.

Bridges must be inspected annually by railroads. But railroads are not required to submit the information to the federal agency. Railroads also are not required to make the information available to the public.

Cummings said the bridge on S. 1st St. has been inspected by a railroad bridge inspector. “We are confident in its ability to safely handle freight and passenger train traffic,” Cummings said.

In her letter, Feinberg said the agency is “re-evaluating” its programs to determine whether it needs to take additional steps.

Common Council President Michael Murphy said he isn’t satisfied by Feinberg’s comments.

“I would liked to have seen a little more teeth in it,” he said.

Murphy said Canadian Pacific should be more transparent, adding that he expects the company to brief the council’s public safety panel soon on the bridge’s condition.

Baldwin and Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, also a Democrat, said in an editorial in the La Crosse Tribune last week that oil trains have put “hundreds of communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin at risk for the explosive crashes that come when an oil train derails.”

Nationally, trains carrying crude oil in the United States have jumped from 10,840 carloads in 2009 to 233,698 in 2012 to 493,127 in 2014, according to the Association of American Railroads.

Canadian Pacific is shipping seven to 11 Bakken crude trains a week through Wisconsin, including Milwaukee, according to the latest data sent to the Wisconsin Division of Emergency Management. BNSF is shipping 20 to 30 trainloads along the Mississippi River.

In a federal transportation bill that has passed the Senate but not yet the House, Baldwin and Franken said they added language that would make oil train information available for first responders. It would also give state and local officials access to inspection records of bridges.

Sunday’s paddle protest in Milwaukee was meant to highlight concerns by Milwaukee Riverkeeper and Citizens Acting for Rail Safety that the area’s aging bridges were not built to accommodate so much oil.

Cheryl Nenn of Riverkeeper said a rail accident that spilled crude could have long-lasting effects on the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers, and Lake Michigan, the city’s source of drinking water.

Complicating a potential oil spill in downtown Milwaukee is wave action from Lake Michigan, known as a seiche effect, where surging water from the lake can push water upstream, she said.

“The Milwaukee River is cleaner today than it has been in decades, and now we face a threat from crude oil,” Nenn said.

Reroute oil trains? History suggests it’s a long shot

Repost from The Star Tribune, Minneapolis MN

Reroute oil trains? History suggests it’s a long shot

By Jim Spencer, March 21, 2015 – 8:22 PM

Industry says reinforced cars on current routes are better than trying to avoid heavily populated areas.

A train carried Bakken oil past St. Paul. Federal rules say a single tanker car spill and fire would require a half-mile evacuation. Photo: Star Tribune

WASHINGTON – Last week, U.S. Sen. Al Franken asked the Federal Railroad Administration to consider rerouting trains carrying volatile Bakken crude oil from North Dakota so they do not pass through Minnesota’s biggest cities.

For Franken, the possibility of rerouting is an integral part of a comprehensive response to a recent rash of fiery oil train derailments that also includes stabilizing Bakken crude before it is loaded into stronger tanker cars.

For the nation’s powerful railroad lobby, however, rerouting is an unwarranted intrusion into a rail safety system that the industry says works.

Government-ordered rerouting of private rail traffic is not exactly a snowball in hell. It is more like a blizzard in Bahrain — possible, but unprecedented.

In Minnesota and around the country, “rerouting issues ought to be high on everyone’s agenda,” said rail safety expert Fred Millar, who fought unsuccessfully against railroads to move chlorine trains out of the District of Columbia. “But rerouting has been pushed off the table.”

Congress created the Federal Railroad Administration in 1966. In nearly half a century it does not appear to have forced any railroads to reroute trains around big cities for safety reasons, despite computer modeling that estimates routing changes could lower citizens’ risks to hazardous materials derailments by 25 to 50 percent and reduce casualties in an actual derailment by half.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) last week estimated that 326,170 state residents live within a half-mile of rail routes that carry oil from North Dakota across Minnesota. A half-mile is the federal emergency response evacuation zone required in the event of a single tanker car spill and fire. Multiple-car fires require up to a mile evacuation.

MnDOT data shows that 156,316 of the Minnesotans subject to evacuation in an oil train derailment live in the Twin Cities metro area. Most North Dakota oil trains enter Minnesota at Moorhead, then travel on BNSF Railway and Canadian Pacific Railway tracks into the Twin Cities before turning south along the Mississippi River and east across Wisconsin. A few oil trains travel through western Minnesota into Iowa.

Although the National Transportation Safety Board has backed rerouting in some circumstances, federal laws passed in 2007 grant private rail companies wide latitude in determining when and where trains should move, even trains carrying hazardous materials.

Canadian Pacific did not comment specifically on rerouting trains in Minnesota, but in an e-mail to the Star Tribune, the railroad said it has voluntarily complied with the federal government’s Crude by Rail Safety Initiatives and performed “route risk assessments.”

BNSF, the largest crude-by-rail hauler out of North Dakota, declined to comment on rerouting and referred questions to the rail industry’s major trade group, the Association of American Railroads.

An AAR spokesman said the industry opposes re-routing oil trains because the existing routes are the safest, even when they pass through urban areas. The industry supports more structurally secure tanker cars, track inspections and training of emergency response teams, said AAR media relations director Ed Greenberg.

BNSF also has invested heavily in track improvements to increase safety along its existing Minnesota oil train routes.

“We’re using routing technology called the Rail Corridor Risk Management System developed by the federal government,” Greenberg said. The technology measures 27 factors — including population density — to determine the safest route for moving hazardous materials, including crude oil, Greenberg said.

“Rerouting isn’t the answer,” he maintained. “All it has accomplished in the past is to force rail traffic through other communities on tracks not built to accommodate products like crude oil.”

The Federal Railroad Administration declined to discuss rerouting oil trains in Minnesota. In an e-mail statement, acting administrator Sarah Feinberg said of Franken’s request: “Over the past 18 months we have taken more than a dozen actions to enhance the safe transport of crude oil while working on a comprehensive rule that is now in its final stages of development.”

The state has little say in the rerouting debate. “The railroads are regulated by the federal government,” Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Gutknecht said. “The state does not have the authority to move, or reroute, rail lines.”

Rerouting trains away from the Twin Cities is not part of a rail safety initiative unveiled March 13 by Gov. Mark Dayton. That proposal calls for spending $330 million over 10 years, much of it in greater Minnesota, mainly to make road-rail crossings safer and to improve emergency response.

Bakken & tar-sands oil still a problem if Keystone XL is built

Repost from The Minneapolis Star Tribune
[Editor: Significant quote: “[Senator Al] Franken said that ‘the biggest rail safety issues in Minnesota have to do with transportation of highly volatile Bakken oil, which would only be marginally affected by the construction of this pipeline. So regardless of whether or not the pipeline is built, rail safety will continue to be a major problem in Minnesota unless we upgrade rail cars and improve track inspections and infrastructure to prevent derailments.'”  – RS]

Keystone XL pipeline poses a political dilemma

By Jim Spencer, January 10, 2015
Environmentalists dislike Keystone XL, but without it more oil trains could roll through Minnesota.
If the Keystone XL pipeline is not built, Minnesota will likely see more oil trains on the state’s tracks. Photo: Tom Wallace, Star Tribune file

WASHINGTON – The Keystone XL pipeline does not run through Minnesota. The major rail routes that might deliver much more Canadian crude oil to the U.S. if it is not built do.

As the controversial pipeline passed the U.S. House on Friday and nears approval in the Republican-controlled Senate, Democratic members of the state’s congressional delegation face a complicated balancing act.

Their supporters who are advocates of renewable energy expect them to vote against the pipeline. President Obama has threatened to veto the current pipeline bill because it short-circuits his administration’s review process.

But Minnesota politicians who oppose the pipeline flirt with a possible long-term increase in oil train traffic on tracks that many constituents say are already overloaded with railcars carrying flammable fuel.

“It is a precarious position to be against oil train transport and to be against the Keystone pipeline,” First District Democratic Rep. Tim Walz acknowledged.

Environmentalists who voted for Walz have voiced their disappointment that he voted for Keystone XL in 2014. Walz voted for it again Friday.

“I have people who support me who are frustrated with my vote on this,” Walz said.

He thinks Keystone has now become an oversimplified political “litmus test” that won’t produce the benefits its supporters claim or the damage its opponents assert.

Still, for Minnesota’s Democrats, the situation remains politically tricky. Democratic Reps. Collin Peterson and Rick Nolan joined Walz in voting for Keystone XL on Friday. They were among only 28 House Democrats to do so.

Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken voted against a Keystone XL bill last year when their party controlled the Senate, saying it did not allow the administrative review process to properly play out. The pipeline approval bill lost. But it is expected to come to a vote next week with Republicans in command.

Neither Klobuchar nor Franken was available for interviews on Keystone XL last week. Both issued statements to the Star Tribune and through communications directors said they will continue to vote against any Keystone XL bill that they believe circumvents the regular review process. Neither specifically addressed potential increases in Canadian tar sands crude oil shipments through Minnesota.

“I have consistently supported allowing the State Department permitting process to move forward so that all issues can be aired,” Klobuchar said. “But this decision can’t be delayed indefinitely, and I believe the administration needs to make a decision. … We have rail service and rail safety issues that need to be addressed now, even before the pipeline issues are resolved.”

Franken said that “the biggest rail safety issues in Minnesota have to do with transportation of highly volatile Bakken oil, which would only be marginally affected by the construction of this pipeline. So regardless of whether or not the pipeline is built, rail safety will continue to be a major problem in Minnesota unless we upgrade rail cars and improve track inspections and infrastructure to prevent derailments.”

Roughly 50 oil trains, some of them a mile long, already carry Bakken crude oil from North Dakota across Minnesota each week.

But Alan Stankevitz, a spokesman for Citizens Acting for Rail Safety, said “there is a concern that [Canadian crude] would be coming through. Any derailment along the Mississippi River would be a disaster.”

Stankevitz said that is because tar sands crude is so heavy that it will sink to the bottom of the river and be difficult and expensive to extract.

How much more oil would pass through Minnesota without the Keystone XL remains a matter of debate.

The U.S. State Department estimated that Canadian tar sands crude oil could be shipped on 12 to 14 oil trains per week. The biggest market is the United States, but some oil trains could go to ports on the West Coast of Canada for export on oceangoing tankers.

Last week, researchers paid by the American Petroleum Institute, which has spent millions of dollars lobbying for Keystone XL, estimated that by 2019 railcars would need to haul 700,000 more barrels of Canadian tar sands crude per day if the pipeline is not built.

Paul Blackburn, a Minneapolis lawyer who has represented various pipeline foes since 2009, called such assertions “completely ridiculous.” Blackburn says oil train traffic in Minnesota will not increase without Keystone XL because enough unused capacity in other pipelines already exists to move any newly produced tar sands crude to the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Blackburn pointed to pipelines running from Hardisty, Alberta, to Flanagan, Ill., which opened in 2009 and 2010, and a third pipeline from Flanagan to Cushing, Okla., which opened in 2014, as a viable alternative to Keystone XL.

He called the State Department analysis “old and duplicitous.”

Spokesmen for Canada Pacific Railway and Canadian National Railway, which haul Canadian crude through Minnesota, both declined to comment on how much oil train traffic in Minnesota would increase without Keystone XL.

Still, the consensus is that more Canadian crude is headed across the border, despite the hope of some environmentalists that the costs of tar sands oil extraction will be unprofitable without Keystone XL.

“This business of stopping tar sands oil is just not true,” said Nolan, who voted for the pipeline last year and again Friday, despite “serious pushback from environmentalists.”

“All you have to do is go to Ranier, where most of the oil comes into Minnesota,” Nolan said. “The oil trains are lined up for miles. There’s already an abundance.”

The pipeline would be “nice to have,” said Sandy Fielden of RBN Energy in Houston. But Fielden, one of the country’s leading analysts on Canadian oil, said Keystone XL is not something producers “need to have.”

Rail-loading capacity for oil is expanding in Edmonton and Hardisty, two of western Canada’s big depots, Fielden said. The recent crash in oil prices could curb extraction of tar sands crude if it persists for an abnormally long time, Fielden added, but for now, there is still a profit to be made from tar sands crude with or without a new pipeline.

That was one of the main reasons Peterson, who like Walz and Nolan, represents a rural area where Canadian crude could pass, supported Keystone on Friday. Without the pipeline Peterson believes there will be more Minnesota oil train traffic.

“We need to get oil in pipelines and out of trains,” Peterson said. “We need trains for grain. We need trains for coal.”

On the other side, Democratic Reps. Betty McCollum of St. Paul and Keith Ellison of Minneapolis maintained opposition to Keystone XL.

“The regulatory process … exists to ensure the safety of our environment and our citizens,” McCollum said in a statement to the Star Tribune. “Those protections should not be bypassed in the case of the Keystone XL project and federal authorities must continue to be vigilant about rail safety in Minnesota.”

New reports on freight backlogs – railroads accused of oil favoritism

Repost from The Minneapolis StarTribune

New reports on backlogs bring renewed criticism of railroads

By: Tom Meersman and Jim Spencer, October 24, 2014
Critics say they prove oil favoritism; railroads say numbers are misleading.
Grain elevators seen from a passing train. With continued delays and backlogs for grain shipments, railroads have been accused of playing favorites. Photo: GLEN STUBBE , Star Tribune

Farming groups and other businesses blasted railroads for poor service and favoritism Thursday after seeing new reports about backlogs and waiting times for rail cars.

Rail critics say new data that the federal Surface Transportation Board has begun collecting suggests that the railroads are giving preference to oil shipments, creating long delays for other freight.

A table from BNSF Railway Co., the region’s dominant railway for grain shipments, reported 747 loaded grain cars that had not moved in more than five days during the week of Oct. 12-18, and only six crude oil cars that had delays of that length.

Gary Wertish, vice president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, said the numbers confirm what many farmers and grain elevators have witnessed all year: oil trains on the move constantly, and grain trains few and far between.

“This is the source of our complaints all along,” Wertish said. “Obviously they’re playing favorites with crude oil.”

The regulators early this month ordered the railroads to assemble and submit weekly reports about their performance, following months of complaints from grain shippers, coal suppliers and utilities, ethanol dealers, taconite processors, and Amtrak executives.

The businesses have claimed that delays in rail service over the past year have cost them and their customers hundreds of millions of dollars in lost time, late supplies and higher prices.

In submitting the first reports, railroads cautioned against drawing quick conclusions from the data.

Canadian Pacific Railway’s president and chief operating officer, Keith Creel, urged regulators in a letter “to step back and consult with all the stakeholders” before continuing the process.

The federal order “imposes a significant regulatory burden without articulating how providing this information will improve the overall rail supply chain in the United States,” Creel wrote. Canadian Pacific serves Minnesota, North Dakota and other northern states.

Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota have followed the issue closely, and all three issued statements Thursday. Klobuchar said the railroad data are needed to understand the problems and “guide decisions” that will reduce delays.

“More transparency in rail operations hardly seems like a tough burden to bear considering what rail shippers in Minnesota are going through,” Franken said.

Canadian Pacific and other railroads filed the reports with the Surface Transportation Board, which regulates the industry. After months of complaints and several hearings, the Board issued an order on Oct. 8 for large railroads to report performance details each week.

The reports cover such things as train speeds, dwell times at terminals, weekly cars on line by car type, weekly total number of loaded and empty cars that have not moved in more than 5 days, coal unit train loadings, grain cars by state and cargo, and number of days late for all outstanding grain car orders.

Bob Zelenka, executive director of the Minnesota Grain and Feed Association, said the report is “unfortunate news” because BNSF pledged weeks ago that it would catch up with its backlogs before harvest, but has not done so.

“It looks like it’s business as usual,” Zelenka said. “The numbers seem to indicate that for whatever reason, the railroads have an easier time moving oil on this congested system than anything else, and I wonder why.”

A study last July estimated that transportation problems between March and May cost Minnesota corn, soybean and wheat farmers more than $100 million in increased freight rates, higher storage costs, lost sales and penalties for products not delivered on time.

Several utilities have also had trouble with delayed and irregular coal deliveries and some have dialed back their power plants and taken other steps to conserve coal stockpiles.

Xcel Energy’s director of fuel supply operations, Craig Romer, said Xcel’s power plants served by BNSF are far behind in the amount of coal they store on site. “Our inventories are in terrible shape,” he said, referring to Xcel’s large Sherco plant in Minnesota and four other coal-burning plants in Colorado and Texas.

“In July, August and September, the railroad actually performed worse than it did in the polar vortex in the middle of the winter,” Romer said. The winter rail problems were related to weather, he said, and the summer disruptions were caused by BNSF track maintenance.

Romer expects regular service to resume when rail construction projects end in a few weeks. “But there’s such a backlog of volume to deliver, it will be several months before they [BNSF] actually turn this thing around,” he said.

BNSF officials have said repeatedly that the company does not give preference to oil shipments over other commodities, and that the railroad is moving more agricultural products than ever before in the region. In a statement late Thursday, the company said that fewer oil cars have delays because oil is moved mainly in unit trains built for speed and efficiency and headed for a single destination.

About half of BNSF’s 27,000 rail cars are also used for 110-car unit trains, the statement said, but the other half are on trains that are broken up as they move across the country and put in rail yards where they are mixed with other cars with different cargoes and sent to various destinations.

“With such a large number of single cars in ag service, the number of cars held [waiting] will always be higher than a commodity traveling almost exclusively in unit trains,” the company said.

In its report, BNSF also noted that if a rail car is held “for more than 48 hours or even 120 hours, it does not necessarily mean that the car will not be delivered in a timely manner or even within the initial service plan.”

Because the weekly reporting system is new and needs to be refined, the company said, “we caution against drawing firm conclusions based upon the absolute values reported in BNSF’s report.”

Staff writer David Shaffer contributed to this report.