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Investigators gather Friday, May 8, 2015, at the site of the oil train derailment and fire near Heimdal, N.D. Photo courtesy of the office of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp

Minnesota state senators tell railroads to begin talking safety

ST. PAUL -- Warning bells figuratively clanged Friday when a Minnesota state Senate committee held its first hearing on new legislation to force railroads to release more information about hazardous materials they haul.

Even some Republicans who generally support railroads warned that railroads need to work better with public safety officials.

Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, told railroad representatives that he would vote against the legislation Friday, but they need to "work out your differences" with public safety leaders. If that does not happen, "in the future, my decision likely is going to be quite different," he said.

Newman's comments came near the end of a hearing in which senators eventually sent the bill to its next committee stop. While the action was taken by a voice vote, and who voted "yes" and who voted "no" could not be determined, during the hearing Republicans generally opposed and Democrats supported the bill by Sen. Vicki Jensen, D-Owatonna.

The Jensen legislation would:

-- Force railroads to provide state and local public safety officials specific information about what materials are going through communities, and when, as well as more material needed to plan for train emergencies.

-- Require railroads to offer more training for public safety personnel along tracks that haul hazardous materials.

-- Increase from four to nine the number of state railroad inspectors, funded by increasing an existing railroad tax.

-- Require the state to launch a Website the public could visit to read about problems inspectors find on railroads.

Railroad representatives said the bill is not needed because they already provide much of that information, the state legislation duplicates new federal law and most problems could be fixed by public safety leaders talking to the railroads.

Public safety personnel told the Senate transportation committee, however, that talking has not worked.

"If this could be solved by simple conversation, it would have been solved long, long ago," Emergency Manager Eric Waage of Hennepin County said.

Rick Larkin, St. Paul emergency management director, held up a piece of paper with a large black square, saying that is a state-required report from one railroad. The first four pages were blacked out to prevent them from being read, which Larkin said made the document useless.

"I think the railroads should become heavily engaged with these safety folks," Newman responded.

Railroad lobbyist John Apitz said the pages were redacted because the railroad did not want to share the information with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which holds the reports, but would have been given to public safety personnel had they asked.

Waage said his office has little information about what railroads haul and what they would do to help local agencies battle emergencies such as derailments, spills and explosions.

"We have been fortunate about having these incidents occur in remote locations," Waage said.

Apitz said railroads are concerned that if they give too much information to state officials, it will leak out.

Vice President Brian Sweeney of BNSF Railway Co. said that the federal government will not allow much of the information to be released because of security concerns. There is a fear terrorists or others could blow up a train hauling oil or other hazardous substance if they have access to routes and schedules.

Sen. Eric Pratt, R-Prior Lake, said after listening to Sweeney and Apitz, that information already is available for public safety personnel who need it. "It feels like we are getting ahead of ourselves."

Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, said that a year ago "we just put on some pretty heavy mandates" and railroads should be given some time to work with the public safety community.

"Information is there..." Sweeney said. "We are just having trouble linking up on who wants what and how we can get it to them."

Apitz said that the railroads and public safety leaders plan a May 2 meeting to discuss the situation, without legislators.

Railroads spent $500 million to upgrade tracks and equipment around Minnesota last year, Apitz said. Another $250 million is expected to be spent this year.

GOP senators criticized Jensen for not talking to the railroads when she drafted the bill.

The rail safety issue has been one of the most-discussed Minnesota legislative topics in recent years as trains carry North Dakota crude oil across the state.

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