Federal Lawsuit Focuses Attention on Safety of Toxic Chemicals on Minn. Railroads

Updated: 04/11/2014 9:56 PM
Created: 04/11/2014 4:05 PM
By: Stephen Tellier

Last July, 47 people were killed when a runaway oil train exploded in the middle of a small Canadian town. In December, a tanker train derailed near Casselton, North Dakota, resulting in a fiery explosion.

Railroad safety has been under the microscope ever since.

Now, a lawsuit has launched a fight over the safety of toxic chemicals transported on local railroads.

"The trains run quite often," said Curt Larsen, who lives with his wife and five-year-old daughter in St. Paul. Railroad racks sit just one block from his home. "There's a nice little rumble all the time," Larsen said.

He's never questioned the safety of the trains running near his home. But the question of railroad safety is now headed for a federal courtroom in Minnesota, in the form of a lawsuit filed on Thursday.

"This is the first one I've seen like this," said Paul Sando, an associate professor of geography with expertise in railroad and transportation logistics at Minnesota State University Moorhead

The lawsuit was brought by several chemical groups, including The Chlorine Institute and the American Chemistry Council, against Canadian Pacific. The railroad wants all rail cars hauling certain toxic chemicals on its lines to meet stricter safety standards starting Monday.

The chemical industry is calling the move "arbitrary, unilateral, and illegal," and said in a statement that such chemicals "are essential to the economy and national health, and rail movement of these materials is extremely safe."

"CP's decision blindsides the chemical industry and has ramifications for America's public health, agriculture, pharmaceutical, construction, defense, and manufacturing sectors," said Tom Schick, ACC's Senior Director of Regulatory and Technical Affairs.

Canadian Pacific issued a statement saying, "... CP opposes the motion by the American Chemistry Council based on our railroad's continual concern over safety in our communities. CP believes there is a shared responsibility to haul these commodities throughout North America in the safest possible manner and our railroad is asking shippers of these toxic chemicals to take steps to further protect our employees and the public."

Sando said the railroad is also trying to protect itself from lawsuits, in the event of an accident.

"They have been bitten in terms of liability on this sort of thing before," Sando said.

But the dispute highlights a bigger battle playing out over railroad safety -- and who should pay for it.

For example, the Association of American Railroads says there are 92,000 rail cars carrying flammable liquids like crude oil in America today. Only 15 percent meet the newest safety guidelines.

"If they said, 'OK, you've got to go to the new standard today,' three-quarters of the fleet would be obsolete," Sando said.

Sando said getting all those old rail cars replaced will take several years -- and one other thing.

"Money. It's going to take a lot of money to get 78,000 tank cars replaced up to standard," Sando said.

"It's kind of alarming," Larsen said.

 Larsen said he hopes the upgrades are made sooner rather than later.

"I don't want an accident here with my five-year-old," Larsen said.

Sando said railroads do have very good safety records overall. In fact, numbers from the Federal Railroad Administration show that there was only one railroad accident in Minnesota that resulted in the release of a hazardous material over the past four years.

The chemical groups suing Canadian Pacific say all of their rail cars currently in use meet existing Department of Transportation safety requirements.

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