Senator Heidi Heitkamp United States Senator for North Dakota

Press Releases

Dec 29 2014

Heitkamp Statement Ahead of One-Year Anniversary of Train Derailment in Casselton

Senator Continues to Fight to Prevent Future Derailments, Prepare for Potential Emergencies & Train First Responders

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp today issued the following statement ahead of the one-year anniversary of the derailment of a train carrying crude oil near Casselton, North Dakota on December 30, 2013.

Over the past year, Heitkamp has worked with federal and local agencies to determine what happened at the derailment in Casselton, put in place policies that help prevent future derailments, and equip North Dakota first responders with the training and resources they need to respond such emergencies if they occur.

“In the wake of the train derailment in Casselton, the question on everyone’s mind was ‘what if?’” said Heitkamp. “What if families had been hurt? What if homes had been damaged? Immediately, I started working with local fire chiefs and officials to get to the bottom of what happened. And I have been pressing our federal agencies for improved rail safety standards to help prevent future train derailments, and pushing on the railroads to make needed investments. We have seen progress on all fronts, but there is still much work to do.

“Our emergency responders are often our first line of defense – and they usually do it without pay. It’s on all of us to make sure they have the training and resources they need to protect our families and communities. That’s why I fought to secure federal funding for state-of-the-art training for our responders, and it’s why I wrote my RESPONSE Act, which would see to it that emergency teams continue to get the best possible tools to keep us safe. The most recent derailment near Casselton just last month reignited public focus on ramping up these public safety measures – because even though we’ve been lucky that both the derailments didn’t hurt anyone, we know we can’t rely on luck alone. We have come a long way in the past year, but must keep pushing to get our safety standards up to pace, and to make sure our emergency response teams get the training they need. Because we can’t let North Dakota families live in fear of ‘what if?’ They need to know we’re working from all sides to keep them safe – and that’s exactly what I’ll continue doing every single day.”

Since the derailment in Casselton, Heitkamp has been unwavering in her commitment to understand what happened, to push on all sides to advance improvements for rail safety, and to secure top-notch training for emergency responders. She has worked closely with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) – including hosting Secretary Anthony Foxx in North Dakota where they spoke about rail safety issues – the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, as well as other federal, state, and local officials, and industry. 

Heitkamp has long sought a holistic approach to improving safety on the rails by:

Working to prevent future train derailments. The National Transportation Safety Board released its Preliminary Report on the Casselton train derailment in January 2013 which showed that 18 of the 20 derailed tank cars were punctured during the derailment of a train in Casselton last December. Heitkamp has continued to stress the need to update standards for tank cars carrying crude oil, increased safety requirements for shipping routes and train speeds, and enhanced track inspection standards for the rail lines carrying crude oil. Earlier this year, Heitkamp called on the Federal Railroad Administration to increase track inspections of the rail lines around Casselton. She also pushed the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety (PHMSA) and industry to share information so the PHSMA could finalize its study on the quality and characteristics of crude, and offer a rule. And she has pressed the railroads to make needed improvements to the tracks.

In July, the DOT released new rules specifically responding to issues she called on the agency to address, including updated standards to tank cars carrying crude oil, increased safety requirements for shipping routes, and improved inspection standards for rail lines carrying crude oil. Since then, Heitkamp has continued to press DOT to finalize its railroad tank car safety rule so that is efficient and workable, as quickly as possible. 

Heitkamp helped bring together Senators, federal government regulators, and energy and railroad industry leaders for a Senate Commerce Subcommittee hearing in April to examine ways to improve rail transportation safety and encourage all sides to work together to make that possible. She also participated in a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing in April where she called for needed investments to keep our railways safe for passengers and communities.

Better preparing for incidents for when they do occur. Heitkamp has stressed that oil will move on the rails for the foreseeable future, and while we need to do everything possible to prevent incidents, we also need to better prepare in case they do occur.  She has continued to bring all sides together to help foster better coordination between rail and oil industries, federal government, and local communities. She has continued to work with Burlington Northern Santa Fe and other railroads.

Giving first responders the training and resources they need to prepare for new hazards. Heitkamp wants to make sure first responders in communities near railroad tracks get quality training and have access to the appropriate resources and effective communications to respond to potential incidents on the rails and make sure North Dakota families and their communities are safe. In June, Heitkamp introduced her RESPONSE Act to better prepare emergency personnel in North Dakota and across the country tasked with responding to potential incidents, such as derailments of trains carrying materials like crude oil. That same month, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $2 million in federal funding, which Heitkamp pushed for, to train first responders for incidents involving hazardous materials transported by rail. In March, Heitkamp brought Casselton Fire Chief Tim McLean to testify at a Senate Committee on Homeland Security hearing she chaired about how to better train our emergency responders for emerging threats and hazards. At the hearing she pressed a top FEMA official to release federal funding for a one-of-a-kind training facility that helps train first responders to handle derailments of trains carrying potentially hazardous materials, like crude oil. Less than a year later, Heitkamp announced $5 million in federal funds were finally provided. Heitkamp continued to fight for funds for rail safety and web-based emergency response training, which were included in this year’s appropriations bill that Congress passed.

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Contact Senator Heitkamp's press office at press@heitkamp.senate.gov