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North Dakota regulator outlines rail safety plan

Published on NewsOK Modified: August 21, 2014 at 4:19 pm •  Published: August 21, 2014
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WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) — A North Dakota regulator outlined details Thursday of her proposal for a state-run rail safety program, which calls for adding three employees to help bolster federal oversight of the state's busy railroads.

Rail traffic in North Dakota has increased dramatically in recent years, with the state's oil boom producing more than 1 million barrels of oil daily. Much of that oil is moved out of state by rail, and mishaps, such as a fiery oil train derailment last December, have driven calls for additional regulation.

Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak's plan calls for hiring two inspectors — a track inspector and an equipment inspector — as well as a rail safety manager. The proposal, first put forward in June, is included in the PSC's budget request to the governor and estimates a cost of $500,000 a year.

The next legislative session begins in January. Gov. Jack Dalrymple has previously said he is open to the proposal and may support funding.

North Dakota's rails are currently monitored only by the Federal Railroad Administration. Out of 11 federal inspectors in the state, the administration has two dedicated to covering 3,000 miles of track. The FRA's team also includes two equipment inspectors.

"Track is the No. 1 cause of accidents," said Fedorchak. She added that equipment issues add to the severity of mishaps.

"The fact is, the feds are stretched too thin and have responded too slowly to this vastly changing industry," said Fedorchak. "It's time now for the state to step in and assist with this vital work."

The PSC says rail traffic increased in North Dakota by 233 percent between 2000 and 2012 due to the state's oil boom. In the last five years, the commission says, the state has seen 56 track-related accidents and 22 equipment-related accidents that have resulted in more than $30 million worth of damage.

A Dec. 30 oil train derailment that caused a massive explosion near the small town of Casselton in eastern North Dakota has driven calls for additional rail safety measures in the state.

Fedorchak said state inspectors would be trained and certified by the FRA and work together with the federal inspectors.

Mike England, spokesman for the FRA, said that the FRA does not comment on pending legislation, but added "dozens of states have state inspectors, and we work closely with them."

While Fedorchak said the proposed program would help enhance rail safety, she says the best way to improve safety is to take more oil off the tracks by building more pipelines.

"Pipelines are by far the safest, most efficient and environmentally sound method of transporting oil and gas," Fedorchak said.