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Number of oil trains moving through Grand Forks County disclosed

Oil train figures disclosed

27 trains moved through Grand Forks County in one week

By John Hageman

Grand Forks Herald

The number of trains carrying more than 1 million gallons of Bakken crude oil passing through Grand Forks County averaged nearly four per day in mid-June, numbers released to the Herald show.

But a local emergency response official said little of that crude moved through the middle of the city of Grand Forks.

The county figures were disclosed in a report from BNSF to the state’s Department of Emergency Services in response to a U.S. Department of Transportation emergency order.

The report shows 27 trains loaded with crude oil from the Bakken formation moved through Grand Forks County between June 12 and June 18. Sixteen moved through the county the prior week, and none moved through the week before that, according to the report.

A similar number of trains moved through Nelson, Ramsey, and Traill counties.

“Freight traffic of all kinds can fluctuate depending on a variety of factors, including maintenance and expansion work,” BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth wrote in an email. She added the company is investing about $400 million in North Dakota to handle an increase volume of freight, including new sidings between Fargo and Grand Forks. “If work is occurring on a particular route, traffic may be held or rerouted when possible.”

According to another report provided by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, no loaded BNSF trains moved through Polk, Red Lake, Kittson, Marshall or Norman counties in Minnesota. Canadian Pacific reported zero or one train moved through Polk, Marshall, Kittson, Red Lake and Pennington counties per week.

The DOT order required railroads to provide each state’s emergency response commission the expected number of trains carrying 1 million gallons or more of Bakken oil through individual counties.

Railroads had asked state officials to keep the information confidential, but the North Dakota SERC determined the information must be released to the public. The state Attorney General’s Office found no legal authority to withhold the reports.

The reports come after multiple derailments and explosions over the past year involving trains carrying crude oil from the Bakken formation in western North Dakota. The amount of oil moving on trains has increased dramatically in recent years.


While the report doesn’t indicate exactly where within the county the oil trains moved, Grand Forks Emergency Manager Jim Campbell said the cars loaded with Bakken crude move south on the rail line on the western edge of Grand Forks. The few that go through the center of the city only carry some oil residue, he said.

“The ones that go through the city do not carry a large amount of the Bakken crude oil,” Campbell said.

McBeth, the BNSF spokeswoman, declined to confirm specific routes of oil trains, but said company has more than one route in Grand Forks County.

“BNSF takes public safety seriously and understands that communities want to know what materials may be moving through their towns, in order to ensure that adequate precautions can be taken,” she wrote in an email, adding the railroad provides first responders and emergency planners with hazardous material shipment information.

“Rail transportation is obviously not hidden from the public, but detailed information about specific shipments could be misused if it comes into the wrong hands, so we share those specifics with emergency planners and first responders,” McBeth wrote.

Another report from Northern Plains Railroad states that an estimated 12 trains move through Walsh County annually. But NPR Executive Vice President Jesse Chalich said the company is storing some cars that were emptied at a refinery before coming to them.

“We’re not hauling any loaded crude-by-rail cars,” he said.

Emergency response

Grand Forks Fire Chief Peter O’Neill wasn’t surprised when told 27 oil trains moved through the county in one week. The Fire Department gets information from BNSF, and conducts its own “flow studies,” or reports on the kind of rail traffic moving through the area.

But O’Neill said having specific oil train figures isn’t as important as one might think.

“If there’s a train a day, we’re not going to prepare any differently than two trains a day,” O’Neill said.

Having a general idea of what materials are moving through the area does help the department determine what kind of equipment it needs to have, said Battalion Chief Kelli Flermoen.

A few Grand Forks firefighters plan on traveling to Colorado to take part in training specifically tailored to oil train incidents, said Capt. Jeff Laskowske. He added BNSF works with the fire department on incident response training.

The Fire Department is currently working on plans for a regional training center, O’Neill said. On top of training for all disciplines of fire and rescue, it would include some space to tip over a rail car to simulate a wreck.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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