FARGO — Julie Fedorchak, a member of the North Dakota Public Service Commission, appeared Thursday in Fargo to promote the commission’s proposal to add a rail safety program to supplement federal inspections.
Fedorchak, a Republican appointee who faces a challenge from Democrat Tyler Axness in the November election, said the PSC’s plan to add three staff members at a cost of $1 million per biennium is “measured” and appropriate to the dramatic increase in rail shipments of Bakken crude oil.
Rail shipments in North Dakota more than tripled in volume between 2007 and 2012, with oil cargoes accounting for much of the increase.
The spike in rail traffic and increased need for public safety — as shown by the December derailment and explosion of oil tankers near Casselton — create the need for the state to augment the federal rail inspection program, Fedorchak said.
“This is the time to do this,” she said, adding that the state also must help to expand pipeline capacity to carry petroleum, which also will make the rails safer as well as support a growing industry important to the state’s economy.
Rail safety inspections in North Dakota now are entirely performed by the Federal Railroad Authority, or FRA, which has two inspectors in the state to check 3,000 miles of track.
The PSC proposal would add a state rail track inspector and mechanical inspector as well as a rail safety manager. The inspectors would be trained and certified by the FRA and have the same authority, Fedorchak said.
“The state can step in here and direct our resources to the areas of greatest concern,” she said, adding that the federal inspectors are working hard but are stretched thin.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple has expressed support for the PSC’s 2015-17 budget proposal, Fedorchak said.
Rep. Pete Silbernagel, R-Casselton, appeared with Fedorchak and supported the proposed state inspection program to augment the federal program.
Silbernagel said Casselton, which sees 14 to 18 trains rumble through the area every day, will welcome a state rail inspection program. He counted four train derailments in recent years on a stretch of track in the area, including the December derailment of oil and grain trains.
“It’s not an over-the-top program,” Silbernagel said. “It’s meant to get more boots on the ground.”
The state inspection program would be part of a broader rail safety solution, which also includes building more pipelines, increasing tanker car standards and setting safe train speeds.
Axness, a Fargo Democrat who serves in the state Senate and is vying for Fedorchak’s post, said state regulators have been slow to act and assume responsibility for the predictable challenges stemming from the oil boom.
“It’s too little, too late in my opinion,” he said, though he does support an increased state role and agrees expanded pipeline capacity is needed.