WASHINGTON (AP) — Members of North Dakota's congressional delegation said Thursday they believe federal officials are moving quickly to try and address issues surrounding a tanker derailment and fiery explosion outside of Casselton.
Sens. John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp met Thursday with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Cynthia Quarterman, head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Hoeven, a Republican, and Heitkamp, a Democrat, said they impressed on both officials the importance of ensuring the safe transportation of materials and protecting North Dakota's fast-growing energy industry.
"I think what we did was we began the discussion," said Heitkamp. "We are looking at their timeline for regulations and we are starting a dialogue with them and with stakeholders."
Hoeven said Foxx told him he was "weeks not months" away from proposing new rules for transporting materials. And Hoeven said that both Foxx and Quarterman emphasized the issue was a priority for them.
One promise the senators secured: Foxx will travel to North Dakota in the coming weeks to get a firsthand view of the state's energy infrastructure and meet with local government officials, as well as oil and rail executives.
Heitkamp said it's clear there are safety issues related to oil transportation in the state that need to be addressed. But she said she did not expect federal officials to be able to solve the problems overnight.
"Everyone now is running for a solution now, sometimes ahead of factual development," she said. "We have an issue and we need to gather facts and ensure safety. But I'm not somebody who is going to put the cart before the horse."
Hoeven said Foxx had already been calling railroad executives and oil industry shippers to gather information and has been "very active on this issue."
Heitkamp and Hoeven have met with numerous federal officials this week after last week's accident near Casselton. A train carrying soybeans derailed ahead of a BNSF Railway oil train, causing that train to also derail and setting off a huge fire and a series of massive explosions. No one was injured, but residents of Casselton were asked to evacuate their homes amid worries about toxic fumes.
The accident was the most recent instance of explosive derailments involving crude oil from the Bakken oil patch, the large oil shale reserve that has led to an energy boom in parts of Montana and North Dakota and pushed North Dakota to be the second-largest oil producer in the country behind Texas.
In July, 47 people were killed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, when a train carrying Bakken crude derailed. Another oil train from North Dakota derailed and exploded in Alabama in November, causing no deaths but releasing an estimated 749,000 gallons of oil from 26 tanker cars.
The Casselton derailment prompted the Department of Transportation last week to issue a safety alert warning related to Bakken crude oil. Officials said Bakken's sweet, light crude may be more flammable than traditional, heavier forms of crude oil because it can ignite at a lower temperature.
The rapid growth of North Dakota's oil industry has fueled an economic boom and helped the state weather a sluggish national economy. But environmental groups and other critics have said incidents like the Casselton derailment show that growth has sometimes come at the cost of properly addressing safety and environmental concerns.
Former Gov. George Sinner, a Casselton native, said in an interview on Wednesday with KFGO radio that the current infrastructure for crude oil tankers was a "ridiculous threat" to state residents and called for quick changes.
"Think of the people in Valley City and Jamestown and Bismarck," said Sinner, a Democrat. "Every town like that is a sitting duck. If an explosion like that happened in any of those towns, God help us."
Hoeven said he, and federal officials, recognized the safety issue and would work to address it. But he said it was also important to ensure the oil industry continues to grow in North Dakota. He said the right solution would involve improved safety regulations and requirements and other measures, such as expanded pipelines and other infrastructure.
Foxx and Quarterman, he said, understand what's at stake.
"They recognize that they need to take an active role and address it, these are real issues," Hoeven said. "We've got to have safety for our citizens."