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Dayton says oil-by-rail shipments through Twin Cities puts thousands of Minnesotans at risk

Oil tank cars not damaged in a train derailment near Culbertson, Mont., are removed from the area on Friday, July 17, 2015. Twenty-two out of 106 oil tankers derailed Thursday evening and three were leaking oil, BNSF Railway said. The cars were the new CPC-1232 tank cars. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

ST. PAUL -- A letter issued by Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday calls for an explanation behind routing changes of crude oil rail shipments.

In the letter to BNSF president and CEO Carl Ice, Dayton says nearly 100,000 more people are within the ½ mile evacuation zone of crude oil rail shipping routes in Minnesota now that BNSF is shipping Bakken crude oil along a rail line through downtown Minneapolis previously not identified as a crude-by-rail corridor.

BNSF’s latest filings with the state show 11 to 23 crude oil trains per week are now being moved along the Willmar-Minneapolis-St. Paul rail line, which passes near such key Minneapolis landmarks as the University of Minnesota, Target Field and Target Center, according to the letter.

The change in shipping patterns results in 99,000 additional Minnesota residents living within the evacuation zone, a 30 percent increase to 425,448, according to the Department of Transportation.

“I am deeply concerned by this new information, and especially that you did not inform me or my staff about this significant change in your operation, which puts an additional 99,000 Minnesotans at risk,” Dayton wrote.

The risk, Dayton writes, is that this particular corridor has not been studied by the state for its safety in transporting crude oil. A DOT report in 2014 assessed the safety of certain rail corridors being used for crude oil and other hazardous materials transportation, but this corridor was not included in the assessment.

Amy McBeth, spokesperson for BNSF, said in an email that increased amounts of crude oil being shipped along the route is due to construction along other routes.

“We comply with the law and report to the state crude volumes of a certain size and their routes … crude oil was already being shipped on the route in question,” she said. “In all areas of the metro region where we move crude oil and other (hazardous materials), we take a number of steps to reduce risk. We’ll be talking directly with the Governor on his concerns and our ongoing efforts to safely move all commodities by rail.”

Dayton called for Ice and BNSF to take certain measures to protect residents living along the route, including:

  •  Keep crude oil trains from running under Target Field -- which is built above the rail route -- during events at the stadium.
  •  Extend BNSF’s first-responder training program to communities along the route.
  •  Verify safety inspections being done on previously identified routes are also being done along the Willmar-Minneapolis-St. Paul line.
  •  Issue a statement that this routing change is temporary, and provide a timeline for when normal operations will resume along the corridor.
Robb Jeffries

Robb Jeffries is a news coordinator for Forum News Service. He is a graduate of the University of North Dakota and previously served as a reporter and copy editor for the Grand Forks Herald. Reach him at and follow him on Twitter at @robbjeffries.