Members of North Dakota's congressional delegation said Thursday they believe federal officials are moving quickly to address issues surrounding a tanker derailment and fiery explosion outside of Casselton, N.D.
Sens. John Hoeven and Heidi Heitkamp met Thursday with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and Cynthia Quarterman, head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
Hoeven, a Republican, and Heitkamp, a Democrat, said they impressed on both officials the importance of ensuring the safe transportation of materials and protecting North Dakota's fast-growing energy industry.
"I think what we did was we began the discussion," said Heitkamp. "We are looking at their timeline for regulations and we are starting a dialogue with them and with stakeholders."
Hoeven said Foxx told him he was "weeks not months" away from proposing new rules for transporting materials. And Hoeven said that both Foxx and Quarterman emphasized the issue was a priority for them.
One promise the senators secured: Foxx will travel to North Dakota in the coming weeks to get a firsthand view of the state's energy infrastructure and meet with local government officials, as well as oil and rail executives.
Heitkamp said it's clear there are safety issues related to oil transportation in the state that need to be addressed. But she said she did not expect federal officials to be able to solve the problems overnight.
"Everyone now is running for a solution now, sometimes ahead of factual development," she said. "We have an issue and we need to gather facts and ensure safety. But I'm not somebody who is going to put the cart before the horse."
Heitkamp and Hoeven have met with numerous federal officials this week after the Dec. 30 incident near Casselton.
A train carrying soybeans derailed ahead of a BNSF Railway oil train, causing that train to also derail and setting off a huge fire and a series of massive explosions. No one was injured, but residents of Casselton were asked to evacuate their homes amid worries about toxic fumes.
The Casselton derailment prompted the Department of Transportation last week to issue a safety alert warning related to Bakken crude oil. Officials said Bakken's sweet, light crude may be more flammable than traditional, heavier forms of crude oil because it can ignite at a lower temperature.
The rapid growth of North Dakota's oil industry has fueled an economic boom and helped the state weather a sluggish national economy. But environmental groups and other critics have said incidents like the Casselton derailment show that growth has sometimes come at the cost of properly addressing safety and environmental concerns.
Former Gov. George Sinner, a Casselton native, said Wednesday that the current infrastructure for crude oil tankers was a "ridiculous threat" to state residents and called for quick changes.
"Think of the people in Valley City and Jamestown and Bismarck," said Sinner, a Democrat. "Every town like that is a sitting duck. If an explosion like that happened in any of those towns, God help us."
Also Thursday in Washington, D.C., the chairmen of the Senate Energy and Transportation committees on Thursday urged the Obama administration to take "prompt and decisive" action following a number of train derailments involving crude oil shipments.
Sens. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., called the recent derailments alarming and said the administration should evaluate whether federal rules adequately address the risks of shipping crude oil by rail.
A recent increase in oil shipments by rail and the string of derailments "demand increased vigilance," Wyden and Rockefeller wrote in a letter to Foxx and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. Rockefeller chairs the Senate transportation panel while Wyden leads energy.
The Transportation Department warned last week that the high-grade crude oil from the Bakken region may be more flammable than traditional forms of oil.
In July, 47 people were killed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, when a train carrying Bakken crude derailed near the Maine border. Another oil train from North Dakota derailed and exploded in Alabama in November.
About 78,000 of the 92,000 tank cars in the U.S. that carry oil and other flammable liquids were built under old safety standards and are prone to splitting open during derailments.
Defects in those cars were noted as far back as 1991, yet a push to retrofit the fleet has been mired for years in the bureaucratic rule-making process.
The railroad industry in November came out in favor of improvements to the older cars after long resisting retrofits.
However, the oil industry remains opposed to changes that carry an estimated price tag of $1 billion. The American Petroleum Institute said in a recent letter to the Transportation Department that there has not been "sufficient justification" for the proposed changes.