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Officials seek to protect railroads

(The Associated Press circulated the following article by Blake Nicholson on January 16. Dennis Willer is a member of BLET Division 746 in Mandan, N.D.)

BISMARCK, N.D. -- Legislation in the North Dakota Senate aims to lower the risk of a disastrous railroad chemical spill, though railroad spokesmen said it would duplicate efforts by the industry and the federal government.

Brian Sweeney, an attorney for BNSF Railway, said the proposal also might put security information at risk by making it available to a large number of local law enforcement and emergency personnel.

Information about high-risk areas would not be shared with the public, but giving it to hundreds of local officials "doesn't strike me as putting a tight lid on it," Sweeney told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
The bill would require railroads to assess risks to their facilities, and make reports to state government. They would have to develop programs to better protect railroad infrastructure against sabotage or terrorist attacks.

Supporters of the bill say it would lead to better coordination among railroads, state agencies and local emergency responders.

They say it is only a matter of time before North Dakota faces another accident - or act of sabotage - that could wreak havoc similar to a January 2002 Canadian Pacific Railway derailment in Minot, which ruptured tanker cars carrying anhydrous ammonia.

"It is not if it will happen again, it is when it will happen again, and will we be prepared this time?" said Rep. Lisa Wolf, D-Minot.

The wreck unleashed a cloud of the toxic farm chemical over Minot, killing one man and sending hundreds of people to the hospital. Anhydrous ammonia is a common fertilizer.

The union that represents North Dakota train engineers and workers said the bill would toughen safety rules.

"We are producing more ethanol, gasoline, diesel, anhydrous and many more chemicals," said Dennis Willer, a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. "These chemicals are handled through and stored in every major city in the state of North Dakota.

"The railroads will tell you they have increased security at all major points. As workers, we haven't seen it," Willer said.

Sweeney said that since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the railroad industry has developed a comprehensive security plan with help from counterterrorism experts.

The federal Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security also are working on rules to regulate such matters as security inspections, Sweeney said. Those rules, he said, are likely to pre-empt state law.

"The goal is to have something workable across the country," he said.

Sweeney said BNSF Railway also has trained more than 1,100 emergency workers in North Dakota in responding to hazardous material accidents since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and that emergency responders have been given a toll-free number to a BNSF "security bunker" at its headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas.

"This bill is simply not needed," he said.

No representative of Canadian Pacific Railway, the other main railroad in North Dakota, spoke at Tuesday's hearing. Tom Kelsch, an attorney for Canadian Pacific, said CP Rail agreed with BNSF Railway's position on the bill.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

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