Senate panel oks tougher railroad reporting standards

Railroads that move oil and other hazardous materials through Minnesota would face stricter disclosure requirements about their disaster plans under a bill moving through the Minnesota Senate.

Members of the Senate transportation committee advanced the measure Friday on a voice vote. It goes next to the finance committee.

A 2014 law required five railroads to submit detailed emergency response plans to the state last summer. But many local emergency officials are still complaining that they’ve never seen the plans or have limited access.

Hennepin County Emergency Management Director Eric Waage told lawmakers that local emergency personnel need unfiltered and timely access to the railroad plans.

“Often when we can get information it is too generic to be useful at the local level, or it’s heavily redacted and missing key information, or it’s accompanied by nondisclosure agreements that make planning with other agencies and entities impossible,” Waage said.

Rick Larkin, emergency management director for the city of St. Paul, said he needs the plans to properly do his job. Larkin held up blacked-out pages he received from one railroad after requesting its plan.

“Your community emergency managers need to know what’s under this black spot,” Larkin said.

Lobbyists for two railroads spoke against the bill.

Brian Sweeney of BNSF Railway said information about train schedules and risk assessment is considered “security sensitive.” Still, Sweeney said he’s trying to improve communication with local officials.

“I think the biggest problem is communication,” Sweeney said. “We had a good talk out in the hall. I think we’re going to have some productive meetings in the future. So, there’s a communication problem we can overcome outside of the Legislature.”

John Apitz, a lobbyist for the Minnesota Regional Railroads Association, raised concerns about sensitive information getting in the wrong hands. Apitz referred to some unredacted railroad documents that MPR News obtained last year from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency through a data practices request.

“It was an unpleasant situation, and we would hope not to be in that situation again,” Apitz said.

Another section of the bill would boost the Minnesota Department of Transportation rail safety inspection program. The number of inspectors would increase from four to nine.

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