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Senator discusses rail shipping problems

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., speaks to The Jamestown Sun editorial board about problems with rail shipping in North Dakota. David Luessen / The Sun

Shipping oil and agricultural products by rail in North Dakota is not likely to end anytime soon in North Dakota, according to U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.

But, changes need to be made to increase the amount and safety of those products being moved by rail.

Heitkamp, D-N.D., met with members of the editorial staff at The Jamestown Sun to talk about different issues North Dakota is facing. The biggest challenge that the state’s biggest industries — oil and agriculture — are facing is a lack of space on existing railroad tracks for shipping oil and agriculture products.

Shipping oil by rail

Heitkamp, U.S. Sen. John Hoeven and Rep. Kevin Cramer, both Republicans, along with Gov. Jack Dalyrmple, R-N.D., met in Casselton N.D., and West Fargo, N.D., Thursday with Anthony Fox, U.S. Department of Transportation secretary, to discuss the ongoing shortage of space on trains for shipping agricultural products and how to improve safety in shipping Bakken crude oil by rail.

A collision between a train carrying Bakken crude oil and a train carrying grain on Dec. 28 near Casselton resulted in a fire that forced the evacuation of half of the residents from Casselton. Since then Heitkamp, Hoeven and Cramer have been urging the U.S Department of Transportation, the Pipeline, Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration to come up with a comprehensive program to address safety issues in shipping oil by rail.

Heitkamp said the rail-shipping capacity issue is being addressed by BNSF, which is planning on expanding its current rail lines to accommodate more traffic.

“They’re going to deploy a ton of resources once the frost comes out of the ground,” she said.

Rail will continue to be the main sources of transporting Bakken crude from western North Dakota, according to Heitkamp.

“Everyone says pipelines are the solution, and pipelines can take some of the pressure off,” she said. “But, we’re always going to move Bakken crude on the rails.”

As to how to make shipping oil by rail safer, Foxx announced Thursday after the meeting in Casselton that the DOT will submit a package of regulatory changes for railroads next week, including new tank car standards.

Heitkamp said any safety improvements made to rail shipping must include better real-time information about railroad tracks, better control of train speeds and implementing a positive train control communications system. The positive train control communications system would provide almost instant, real-time information to train dispatchers when a train runs into a problem on a track anywhere in the country.

Heitkamp said there is support for a positive train control system in Congress, but there is a problem with the Federal Communications Commission being able to put enough communication towers across the country to make the system work.

Heitkamp said determining the best state in which to ship Bakken crude is also important, as the DOT and PHMSA are testing the oil at different stages of production and shipping to see how it can be made less flammable during shipping. She said the oil industry is conducting similar tests.

One possible solution Heitkamp has heard to the volatility problem with Bakken crude is Canadian oil firms are looking at shipping the crude in its thicker, tar-sand-oil state.

“It means they (Canadian oil firms) would be taking out a lot of the gases before moving the oil by train,” she said.

Heitkamp said the government and the oil and rail industries need to make sure that first responders to train accident scenes know what it is that is being shipped through their communities. She said the responders also need to have the best training out there to give them the knowledge and tools to fight a disaster scene like the one that happened near Casselton.

Unmanned aircraft,

human trafficking

Heitkamp said North Dakota is leading the way in developing the technology and use of unmanned aircraft systems. Federal Aviation Administrator Michael Huerta visited North Dakota Monday to announce the Northern Plains Unmanned Systems Authority, based in Grand Forks, is the nation’s first UAS test site to be up and running.

Heitkamp said she expects UAS use to spread to all areas of the state as the technology develops.

Heitkamp said she spent last week in Mexico with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Cindy McCain, wife of U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, to discuss the ongoing issue of human trafficking in North America. She said she learned that most of the victims of human trafficking are coming from Central America, mainly Guatemala and Honduras.

Heitkamp and Klobuchar introduced a bill earlier this year to address one of the hurdles prosecutors are facing in pursuing human trafficking cases — getting the victims to testify in court.

“The victims won’t testify because they’re afraid of being charged with prostitution, or running guns or delivery of a controlled substance, whatever the victim was forced to do,” she said.

Heitkamp said the bill would create a “safe harbor” for the victims.

“These people, they’re victims of a crime and we should treat them accordingly,” she said.

Forum News Service contributed to this story.

Sun reporter Chris Olson can be reached at 701-952-8454 or by email at

Chris Olson

Hometown: Traverse City, MI College: Northwestern Michigan College and Michigan State University

(701) 952-8454