Trains roll in and out of the Pig's Eye railyard south of downtown St. Paul, and trucks rumble by as hazmat inspector Kevin Kampa points to an oil train parked just beyond a concrete wall.
"This train could be anywhere from 90 to 110 cars," he said. "It's all one load, likely from the Bakken" oil fields in North Dakota.
Kampa, who works for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, is in St. Paul today. Tomorrow he might be in Marshall in southwest Minnesota — or Duluth. He recently teamed up with federal inspectors to check trains entering Minnesota across the Canadian border.
The railroad won't let Kampa take a reporter into the yard, but he explains the process. Inspecting this oil train by himself would take about half a day and some physical, dirty work. He'd have to climb on top of about 100 tank cars to check valves and then crawl under to check the tank car drain plug.
"One of the more common things that we do find on these is those bottom outlet caps will be loose on occasion," he said. "We actually physically go under there and make sure that cap is tight. It's gotta be what they call tool tight. We can't be able to open it with our hands. Otherwise it's a problem."
Loose outlet caps, loose bolts on covers and open valves are often the cause of hazardous materials spills on trains not involved in an accident, according to incident data (pdf) from the Association of American Railroads.
Rail yards like Pig's Eye are a good place to find hazmat trains because they often stop for a few hours, giving inspectors time to check the cars.
"We can't stop a train," said Kampa. "If this train's ready to go, I can't say hold the train up for two hours while I check it. They have timetables and that's something we can't do."
Fewer oil trains are passing through Minnesota since falling oil prices slowed activity in the Bakken fields. There are now five to seven oil trains daily compared with eight to 10 trains a day last year, according to MnDOT.
Kampa, though, says there are many other hazardous materials passing through the state or arriving for use in industry or agriculture.
"One thing with crude oil is you have the sheer volume. But there's other chemicals that are much more dangerous," he said. "I think of poison inhalation hazards, explosives, things like that. And there's a lot of anhydrous ammonia (a commonly used farm fertilizer) being transported through the state, especially during the season."
On a good day, Kampa said he might do two or three inspections. But if he finds problems, the paperwork can take hours. He only checks a small fraction of hazmat cars on the rails.
"Well, you can only get to what you can get to. You know the train traffic is heavy and there's myself along with a couple other federal hazmat inspectors. But we do what we can."
Kampa works under an agreement with the Federal Railroad Administration, the agency with authority to inspect railroads. Any problems he finds are reported to the federal agency.
He often works closely with two federal hazmat inspectors who cover Minnesota and western Wisconsin.
He was hired about a year ago and went through a lengthy training. The hazmat inspector position is paid for by an assessment charged to railroads. The state also has two track inspectors and is hiring an equipment inspector.
The Federal Railroad Administration targets five areas of rail operations for inspection, including hazardous materials, locomotives and equipment, operating practices, signals and train control, and track condition.
There's already a need to add more inspectors, said Bill Gardner, who heads MnDOT's division of freight and commercial vehicle operations.
"We think there's opportunity to do more work out there, particularly as rail traffic grows around the state," he said.
"We think the need is going to grow for additional inspection," he added. "If we have one inspector in a discipline if they're sick, if they're on vacation and so forth, they can't work 24/7. So the idea of having pairs of inspectors makes a lot of sense to us."
Gardner says MnDOT will monitor inspections to see what kind of problems show up and what percentage of trains inspectors are able to examine. The growing rail traffic makes it more important than ever, he said, to ensure hazardous materials are moving as safely as possible.
Correction (Oct. 1, 2015): An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Bill Gardner.
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