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Rail inspections

A warning placard on a tank car carrying crude oil near a loading terminal in Trenton, N.D. North Dakota Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak wants the state to employ its own railroad safety inspectors to help monitor crude shipments coming from the oil patch. Fedorchak says the idea is aimed at preventing accidents like the fiery oil train crash outside Casselton in December that left an ominous cloud over the town and led some residents to evacuate. 

BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota should employ its own railroad safety inspectors to help the federal government monitor crude oil shipments coming from the state's booming oil patch, a state regulator said Friday.

Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak said the idea is aimed at preventing fiery oil train crashes like the one outside Casselton in December that left an ominous cloud over the town and led some residents to evacuate.

"This is a big issue on everybody's mind," Fedorchak said. "Everybody has seen these accidents."

Fedorchak said she is crafting a plan that would add at least two inspectors in the state on top of the inspections already done by the Federal Railroad Administration.

"I'm not saying that the feds are not doing a good job," Fedorchak said. "More eyes on the job are better than fewer."

FRA spokesman Michael Cole said 30 states already provide supplemental safety inspections to the agency and it welcomes more. The FRA does not does not reduce its efforts in a state that elects to employ state rail safety inspectors, he said.

"It's up to states if they choose to," Cole said. "We provide training and guidance."

Cole said the agency has about seven inspectors that cover the Bakken oil region of western North Dakota and eastern Montana, a staffing level that's stayed the same over the past decade despite soaring crude shipments.

North Dakota's oil production is more than 1 million barrels of oil daily and about 75 percent of it is being shipped by rail. Railed oil shipments in North Dakota began in 2008 due to lack of pipelines to move it to market.

Fedorchak said state inspectors could help check the labyrinth of more than 3,000 miles of track in the state.

"Tracks by far are the largest contributor to accidents," she said "That clearly shows me that's where we should start."

Gov. Jack Dalrymple said he's open to Fedorchak's proposal and may support funding in his budget for the next Legislative session that begins in January.

"I think (Fedorchak) is on the right track," Dalrymple said. "It has to be effective, cost effective and truly make a difference. That's the challenge."

Dalrymple said the state has relied on the federal government for decades to oversee train inspections.

"For years and years, that's been perfectly adequate," the GOP governor said. "But after the Casselton incident, everyone realizes the stakes have gone up and we need to do everything we can to keep trains on the tracks."

The Dec. 30 collision in Dalrymple's hometown highlighted worries about shipping crude by rail and led to a safety alert from the U.S. Department of Transportation warning about the potential high volatility of crude from the rich oil fields of western North Dakota and eastern Montana.

The North Dakota PSC is a three-member panel regulates coal mining, land reclamation, pipelines, electric and gas utilities, grain elevators, telecommunications and auctioneers. Dalrymple appointed Fedorchak, a Republican, to fill a seat in 2012, after it had been vacated by Republican Kevin Cramer, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Democrat Tyler Axness, a state senator from Fargo, is seeking the seat currently held by Fedorchak in the November election.

Axness said the idea of having state rail inspectors isn't new.

"I've been supportive of a state rail inspection program for a long time," he said. "Thirty other states have their own rail inspectors and nowhere has railed oil traffic increased more than it has in North Dakota. It should not have taken a train explosion outside of Casselton to do this.

"This is governing by emergency."