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Lawmakers take up rail safety bill

Legislation aims to improve communication on hazardous materials traveling by rail and pipeline through communities.

ST PAUL, Minn. — The Senate Transportation Committee Friday gave the green light to a railroad safety bill that would bring more inspections and tighten reporting rules, especially surrounding hazardous materials moving through Minnesota.

It came a day after a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train derailed in Raymond, Minnesota tossing 22 tanker cars, some filled with ethanol and others with corn syrup.

The legislation offered by Sen. Rob Kupec, a Moorhead Democrat, was already in the works before that accident. His effort gained more traction after the chemical train derailed and burned in East Palestine, Ohio in February.

Sen. Kupec told fellow lawmakers Friday that communities need to know more about what's rolling down those rail lines, both before and after there's an accident.

"A single freight train can replace several hundred trucks, but when something goes wrong that can be like several hundred trucks having a crash," Kupec told the transportation panel Friday.

"And I think for our first responders, who are going to be the first at many of the scenes, the more they know, the more training they have to deal with this, and the more lines of communications the better the outcome will be for Minnesotans across the state."

Kupec's bill focuses on both communication and emergency preparedness. If it were to become law, the bill would:

  • Require railroads to inform local emergency agencies what materials will be hauled on the lines moving through their cities.
  • Require railroads to notify emergency responders of the contents of derailed tankers within 15 minutes of an accident.
  • Require railroads to include local first responders in hazmat response training exercises.
  • Increase the number of railroad inspectors, and pay for it by charging the railway companies a fee.

The bill will be sent through several other Senate committees as it makes its way to a vote by the full Senate.

None of the Republican members raised objections during Friday's hearing, but in the past, they have opposed adding extra government burdens to an industry they assert is already heavily regulated.

Gov. Walz Thursday praised BNSF for its quick response to the Raymond accident, which forced the evacuation of local residents to a nearby town.

"When the Secretary of Transportation is calling before 5:00 a.m. when a jet from Fort Worth lands in Willmar with the CEO of Burlington Northern,  it’s clear everybody’s taking this a lot more seriously," Walz told reporters.

"And it was great to hear the CEO say, 'We take full responsibility for this. We’re deeply sorry for the inconvenience.' I have to tell you at this point in time this is the way these responses should go."

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