Last week, news broke of another oil train derailment, this time near Heimdal in central North Dakota.
Anti-oil activists could almost be heard panting in their excitement, rushing to the media with talking points about "bomb trains" and lax regulation of oil shipped on America’s rail lines.
Rep. Ron Guggisberg, a North Dakota Democrat from Fargo, went on MSNBC to make political hay claiming the state’s first responders aren’t prepared for these derailments.
But let’s cut through the miasma of anti-oil politics that surrounds these incidents. We learned a couple of very positive things that fly in the face of the narrative pushed by activists and partisan opportunists like Guggisberg.
For one thing, despite what Guggisberg claims, North Dakota’s first responders were prepared for this derailment and responded to it in admirable fashion thanks to training they received after the Casselton derailment in 2013.
"A fire-training event put on by a rail company last year provided the perfect script for Harvey and Fessenden firefighters in battling the blaze from derailed oil tankers near Heimdal Wednesday," reported Jill Schramm for the Minot Daily News. "The volunteer firefighters stated the regional training put on by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad in New Rockford after the December 2013 derailment and oil fire near Casselton taught them exactly what they needed to know."
The source for this information? Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who met with the first responders after the incident and, like Guggisberg, is a Democrat.
As for the "bomb trains" narrative, it turns out that while there was certainly a fire at the Heimdal derailment, there were no explosions.
"The oil tanker cars involved in [last week’s] train derailment near Heimdal, North Dakota, caught fire but did not explode," reported Prairie Public Broadcasting.
"In April, North Dakota began requiring companies to remove the most flammable gasses from crude oil and lower its vapor pressure before loading it onto trains. The goal was to prevent an explosion during a crash," the Prairie Public report continues.
It seems that goal was achieved, at least in this instance. The oil on the Heimdal train was tested at 10.83 psi, about 21 percent lower than the maximum allowed under the state’s new rules implemented by the Republican-led Industrial Commission.
Again, the narrative pushed by political opportunists like Guggisberg and anti-fossil fuel activists is one about "bomb trains" and communities ill-prepared for the oil shipments rolling through them. But the reality of Heimdal is one where policies and training implemented by state leaders after the Casselton derailment worked.
The derailment wasn’t prevented, but its impact was mitigated. That’s a win. And there may be another win for state leaders on the horizon.
Preliminary reports from the derailment scene in Heimdal indicate a broken wheel was to blame. If that’s true, the question becomes how the faulty wheel wasn’t caught by inspectors before a catastrophic fail caused the derailment.
But this is an issue already being addressed by the state. During the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers joined 34 other states in launching its own rail safety program to complement federal regulators. The state will be funding two inspectors, one focusing on rail issues and the other focusing on mechanical issues — like broken wheels.
This was the idea of Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak, who campaigned on it during the 2014 election cycle, and it may be something the state can expand on in the future.
We’re never going to be rid of train derailments, and it is absolutely clear we need to get more oil off the rails and into pipelines. But in the short run our state leaders have taken steps to make these derailments less common, and perhaps more importantly, less severe.
Nobody is happy about the train derailment in Heimdal — except maybe partisan opportunists and activists — but it did illustrate a measure of success in state policy to make oil by rail shipments safer.
Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com and a reporter based in Minot, North Dakota. You can contact him at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @robport.
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