Imagine a pair of locomotives pull out of the BNSF railyard near Marshall Street and St. Anthony Blvd. and head east toward St. Anthony. They’re pulling a train of 100 cars, each loaded with 30,000 gallons of highly-flammable Bakken crude oil. The engines cross 37th Avenue and Stinson Blvd., but there’s an irregularity in the track behind them. One of the cars, not maintained as well as it should be, tips over and splits, disgorging thousands of gallons of oil. It pulls over the one behind it, then another and another and another. Soon, Columbia Heights, St. Anthony and Minneapolis are awash in oil all the way down to MSP airport.
It happened in 2013 in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. In 2014 near Casselton, ND. Near Heimdal, ND, in 2015. Ellendale, MN, in 2016. In 2017, a tanker containing chloride derailed on a bridge over the Mississippi River. Last year, two locomotives derailed in St. Paul and spilled 3,200 gallons of diesel fuel into the river. Recently, another locomotive jumped the track south of downtown St. Paul and dumped 2,000 gallons in a creek.
According to Citizens Acting for Rail Safety-Twin Cities (CARS-TC), rail disasters like these are becoming more common as crude oil and other hazardous materials move across Minnesota to destinations east. The group met Feb. 10 at East Side Neighborhood Services (ESNS), 1700 NE 2nd Street, to listen to a panel discussion on rail safety. Panelists included Bruce Campbell, author of the book, “The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster;” Rep. Frank Hornstein, chair of the Minnesota House Transportation Committee; Steve Suppan, Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy; Dr. William Toscano, Division of Environmental Health Services, University of Minnesota; and Claire Ruebeck, CARS-TC policy analyst.
Campbell spoke first, summarizing the missteps that lined up to create the Lac-Mégantic spill and subsequent fire that destroyed the city center and killed 47 people.
The train that derailed belonged to Canadian Pacific. The rail line running to Lac-Mégantic was a poorly-maintained spur that CP had sold to an independent operator, the Maine, Montreal and Atlantic Railway. On July 6, 2013, a 73-car train containing Bakken crude rolled up to Lac-Mégantic. Only one person was running the train, and it was his day off. He had to park the train on a hill overlooking the 6,000-person town. It curved around the town in a tight arc. After he parked the train, he left the engines running to keep the air brakes pumped up and working. He did not set any hand brakes on the DOT-111 tank cars behind the locomotives. The fire department was soon called to put out a fire on the lead locomotive. The engine was turned off, and its air brakes disabled.
Meanwhile, a summer festival was in full swing in the town center below.
Air brakes off, the train began to roll, gathering momentum as it swung around the arc and ran downhill. As it neared downtown, 63 of the tank cars derailed, spilling oil. There was an explosion and downtown Lac-Mégantic was soon engulfed in flames that roared out of sewers and chimneys. Forty-seven people died, and 30 downtown buildings were completely destroyed. Environmental damage included benzene, which soaked into the soil, and the Chaudière River was filled with an estimated 26,000 gallons of oil. The town is still in recovery mode.
Campbell said Canada exports 99.9 percent of its oil, 80 percent to the U.S. Much of that oil is routed through Minnesota, and the Twin Cities.
Hornstein noted that Minnesota has 4,450 miles of track, the fifth highest number in the U.S., yet has only four rail inspectors. By contrast, California has nearly 7,000 “track miles” and 39 inspectors. He is introducing legislation to double the number of rail inspectors in the state. A second bill would mandate two-person crews for every train. This would help prevent accidents such as Lac-Mégantic, because the second engineer could set the hand brakes on the individual cars while the other set and tested the brakes on the locomotives.
Suppan said railroads talk eagerly about automated “driverless” trains of the future. He fears more derailments will be the result. He advocates positive train control – a system designed to automatically stop a train before train-to-train collisions, derailments caused by excessive train speed or train movements through misaligned track switches – and screening engineers for sleep apnea, among other measures.
Ruebeck discussed the accident at Casselton, ND, in which two trains collided. “Because they had two crew in one locomotive and three in the other, they were able to detach the upright cars and move them away from the fire. We need people on site,” she said.
Pipelines are not necessarily the answer, Hornstein said. “Both rail and pipelines have incredible risks.” He pointed out that disaster response at a pipeline spill can be delayed in remote locations.
The panel also discussed the railroads’ lack of liability insurance. In the U.S., only Amtrak carries liability insurance. “There is no liability requirement for railroads,” said Hornstein. “Bankruptcy is the exit plan.”
Suppan said the increased use of rail for oil affects agriculture and lumber industries’ ability to ship their products. “But routing has little interest for Congress,” he said.
Ruebeck worried about Minneapolis’ 2040 Comprehensive Plan, which would build housing in “blast zones” (generally, anywhere within a half-mile of a railroad track). “Why would we put a 127-unit building within the blast zone?” she asked.
CARS-TC also advocates for smaller trains no greater than 50 cars, more frequent track inspections and replacing DOT-111 tanker cars with cars that are less prone to splitting during a derailment.
The panelists thanked CARS-TC members for the speaking invitation and for their work. “People have the power, not agencies,” said Toscano. “Activism brings change.”
Below: Bruce Campbell spoke at a rail safety panel discussion held Feb. 10 at ESNS. (Photo by Cynthia Sowden)