Local emergency workers prepare for more rail traffic, spill risk
BEMIDJI -- Emergency workers in Beltrami County are preparing for more trains, including crude oil trains, to run through the area -- and with them, more risk of a spill emergency.
Chris Muller, emergency management director for the the county, recently completed a countywide Railroad Information and Emergency Plan, in preparation for a potential emergency incident on area railways. The plan's completion is especially timely in light of recent derailments in Pillager, Minn., and Casselton, N.D.
According to the plan, the cities of Bemidji, Wilton and Solway -- plus surrounding townships -- are all "vulnerable" to a railroad emergency.
"In the event of a large railroad incident, it is unlikely that Beltrami County would have the required resources to appropriately handle the incident," the report said.
Beltrami County emergency agencies would need help from neighboring counties, it said.
Although hundred-car "unit trains" do not regularly go through Bemidji, in Muller's opinion it's only a "matter of time" before they do.
Bemidji Police Chief Mike Mastin said the higher frequency of trains means a greater risk of rail incidents. Bemidji sits directly between the ever-growing oil industry in North Dakota and the oil refinery/transport hub in the Duluth/Superior area, he pointed out.
"You're going to have more occurrences when you have more traffic on the rail," Mastin said. "That, I think, is probably our key factor in our vulnerability; more occurrences we may see."
However, Mastin said it might not be worth investing the time and money for Beltrami County to be able to handle an incident without the help of other counties. Part of the reason the mutual aid system exists between the emergency services of different counties is so one county doesn't have to handle emergencies by itself, Mastin said.
"I don't even know if that's entirely possible," Mastin said of Beltrami County services becoming independent. "I don't know that it's cost-effective for Bemidji ... or any community to buy all that equipment, not knowing 'Is this going to happen here or is it going to happen down the road in the next town?'"
Whatever response force Bemidji emergency workers can muster, it's possible they'll be thrust in the middle of a situation where they might not even know for sure what hazardous materials, if any, are leaking.
"It's kind of scary when you start digging as to what is actually going through," Muller told the Bemidji City Council at a recent work session.
Muller said hazardous materials placards are required on tank cars but other kinds of cars, like boxcars, don't need to have them.
"There's no way of telling what's inside of it," he said of non-tank cars.
Neither Beltrami County nor the city of Bemidji can regulate what cargo the trains carry or how fast they go, but they would still have to deal with derailments in the time it would take for BNSF responders to get to the county, Muller said.
There's a statewide legislative push to require rail companies and pipeline operators to provide training to local fire departments from communities along their lines on how to to deal with an incident. The bill, which also includes more funding for emergency training and additional state railway inspectors, was approved by the Legislature Friday for Gov. Dayton to sign.
"That is the hot-button issue right now across the state, trying to get our responders trained," Muller said. "Because the reality is, we are going to be responding to their incidents. If a train derails, it's our incident initially..."
The Bemidji Fire Department is tasked with being the first responding agency to a fire or hazmat incident on the railway in Bemidji. It deals with the hazardous substance itself and any fires that may result from the rail incident.
The railway that runs through Bemidji, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, already offers some training voluntarily without a state mandate. This year for the first time BNSF has invited Bemidji firefighters to attend a school in Colorado expenses-paid to learn how to respond to rail incidents. Fire Chief Dave Hoefer said although no BFD firefighters have attended the school previously, that will change this summer.
"There's no doubt in my mind, we'll have Bemidji firefighters out there for sure," he said.
Although there's yearly Beltrami county-wide training for pipeline incidents, Hoefer was unaware of equivalent training for rail incidents.
"We have a good mechanism currently in place for the pipeline," he said. "Hopefully we'll be able to extend that to the railroads in our community and hopefully get on the same ... field our pipeline folks have been on for a number of years."
While the BFD deals with the hazardous substance itself, the Bemidji Police Department's main job is to prevent more people from being affected by exposure to the incident by securing a perimeter around the site and evacuating citizens of nearby populated areas if, for example, there's a hazardous smoke plume from burning cars.
Mastin said each year the BPD sends roughly half the department's roster to annual county-wide classes for pipeline incident response, so that the entire force receives training at least once every two years. This year Mastin plans to also send the BPD's new crop of reserve officers since a spill incident could tie down much of the force as a whole, both regular officers and reservists.
"An incident such as this can really consume manpower in a hurry," Mastin said.
If officers can't go to the training held locally, the BPD tries to send them to the trainings held in neighboring counties but this can sometimes prove too expensive.
"Sometimes sending people to training gets a little cost-prohibitive, so we try to manage that the best we can," he said.
Mastin could not recall the last year BPD officers went to a county-wide training session on rail incidents, but a subordinate officer handles training schedules.
Generally speaking, Mastin said, area pipeline operators have been more proactive in making training available and notifying the BPD of sessions than rail operators.