Audit finds Montana railroad safety lacking amid increasing Bakken oil train traffic

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HELENA, Montana — Montana's oversight of railroad safety falls short at a time when volatile crude oil train traffic from the Bakken region, already high, is only expected to increase, a new audit found.

Montana has no active rail safety plan and employs only two inspectors to cover the vast state, the Montana Legislative Audit Division report released Wednesday said. In addition, there is a lack of statewide emergency planning and hazardous-material response capability should an oil spill occur, the report found.

That's a potentially precarious situation with a new crude oil transfer station in North Dakota coming online that should boost oil traffic crossing Montana from about 10 trains a week to up to 15 cars per week. One out of every five Montanans lives in an evacuation zone for an oil-train derailment, which is within a half-mile of a rail line, the report said.

Trains carrying Bakken crude have been involved in fiery derailments in six states in recent years. In 2013, a runaway train hauling crude from the Bakken derailed and exploded in downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people.

More recently, a train hauling Bakken crude derailed and spilled 35,000 gallons near the remote northeastern Montana town of Culbertson in July. That area was highlighted in the audit for its lack of equipment and trained manpower to respond to a spill.

The audit focused its assessment on the efforts of the state's Public Service Commission, Disaster and Emergency Services agency and Department of Transportation. It credited the transportation department with adequately managing highway rail-crossing safety, but it found problems with the other agencies.

The Public Service Commission is responsible for the supervision of railroads in partnership with the Federal Railroad Administration. The commission has not conducted a rail safety risk assessment and does not have enough inspectors to adequately cover the state, the auditors said.

"Aside from ensuring the minimally mandated number of rail safety inspections are being conducted on an annual basis, the PSC is not actively engaged, internally or externally with other stakeholders, in rail safety," the report said.

Commission spokesman Eric Sell said Thursday the agency plans to introduce the issue next week for a possible investigation. He added that the state's role in rail regulation is subservient to the U.S. government, and only the state Legislature can authorize hiring additional inspectors.

"This is really out of our control with the limited resources we have," Sell said. "If the Legislature finds we should take a bigger role and provides more resources, we'd be happy to do that."

The Montana Legislature's next session isn't until January 2017.

The audit suggested lawmakers take railroad oversight away from the Public Service Commission if it "is unwilling or unable to prioritize its railroad safety activities." Sell said that would be the prerogative of the Legislature.

The review also faulted Disaster and Emergency Services for weaknesses in statewide emergency planning and in the ability to quickly respond to a hazardous material spill, particularly in northeastern Montana, where BNSF Railway's main northern line crosses.

There aren't enough properly trained and equipped firefighters for the area to have its own HAZMAT team, and no professional fire department to host one, the report found.

The nearest regional HAZMAT team is 300 miles away in Billings. Two rail companies have their own teams, but they are primarily meant to respond to spills in rail yards.

As a result, many local governments' response plans to hazardous material spills entail forming a perimeter to keep people out until trained responders arrive, which could take 12 hours or more depending on the distance and the season, according to the audit.

Adjutant Gen. Matthew Quinn said in a written response that the jurisdiction of the Department of Military Affairs — the parent agency of Disaster and Emergency Services — is limited by state law, which gives local governments the responsibility for their own emergency preparedness and response.

The department plans to hold a railroad hazardous material exercise in 2017 and will advise and assist those local governments to the extent of its authority, Quinn said.

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