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Minnesota Legislature: Oil safety provisions avoid pipelines

ST. PAUL — Minnesota lawmakers are on the verge of considering a bill that would help prevent oil train disasters and respond better if they occur, but the bill includes nothing about pipeline safety.

That does not sit well with Gov. Mark Dayton and House Transportation Finance Chairman Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis.

In response to a Forum News Service question, Dayton said Wednesday he told legislative leaders he wants pipeline safety provisions included in the bill.

Later, he followed up by sending legislative leaders and budget negotiators a strongly worded letter asking they reconsider leaving pipelines out.

“I am deeply concerned that your conference committee has rejected attempts to include pipelines in the hazardous materials disaster preparedness and response sections of the transportation article,” Dayton wrote. “I urge conferees to revisit the issue and adopt more stringent requirements, including provisions for responding to spills within a specified time period, submitting environmental response plans, conducting preparedness drills and paying their fair share of the overall program’s costs.”

Hornstein said such a letter could sway negotiators’ opinions on the issue.

Dayton pointed out 86 pipelines operate in Minnesota and Enbridge proposes to expand use of one northern Minnesota pipeline and build a new one.

The pipelines carry a variety of materials, including volatile North Dakota crude oil.

“Most Minnesotans will receive little, if any, direct benefit from the transport of these materials across our state,” Dayton said. “At the very least, their health and safety, the health and safety of their communities and the quality of their surrounding natural resources should be protected to the greatest extent possible. And they should not have to pay for this protection with their own tax dollars.”

Money to fund the oil safety bill would come from an increase in existing railroad assessment and from general tax dollars.

Railroad safety provisions to provide $8.26 million over the next three years are contained in an overall budget bill that House and Senate negotiators are struggling to finish.

Several explosive derailments have grabbed attention recently. The governor and Hornstein said the rail provisions are good first steps to dealing with derailments.

“We fell short on pipelines,” Hornstein said.

Hornstein said Minnesota pipelines have spilled 18,000 gallons of oil since the early 1990s. “We have a record of spills.”

A House-passed bill contained pipeline safety provisions, but the Senate measure did not.

“We believe the House is taking a reasonable approach to a very important topic,” said George Esbensen, legislative chairman of the Minnesota State Fire Chiefs Association.

Esbensen said 900,000 people live near existing oil pipelines.

“Leaving out these transport routes places a lot of people in potential jeopardy, and we think the oil and pipeline companies have a civic duty to help protect the people in these areas,” he said. “We hope that at the end of negotiations, the stronger House provisions will prevail on this issue.”

Among items in Hornstein’s bill was one to require pipelines to begin cleaning up a spill within eight hours.

The bill contains $2 million to improve highway crossings along oil train routes, mostly from the Moorhead area to the Twin Cities, the route taken by most oil trains.

Among the other beneficiaries of the funds would be first responders, such as fire departments, on oil train routes. First responders would receive state-funded training and equipment.

The bill provides funding to boost the number of state rail inspectors from one to three or four.

Whatever the outcome of remaining talks this year, Hornstein said, the oil transportation issue will be in front of lawmakers again.

“This will be an issue that will be discussed ... certainly next year and for years to come,” he said, in light of booming western North Dakota oil production. “There is much more we can do.”

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.