- Associated Press - Thursday, April 9, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - North Dakota House budget writers have stripped funding for a state-run rail safety program intended to supplement federal oversight of burgeoning oil train traffic after a string of accidents involving trains carrying crude.

The Public Service Commission had requested $972,000 in the next two-year budget cycle to fund the program that included two rail safety inspectors and a rail safety manager to supplement inspections by the Federal Railroad Administration.

The program had been a campaign platform for Republican Public Service Commissioner Julie Fedorchak when she ran for the position last year. GOP Gov. Jack Dalrymple also had included the funding for the program in his budget, but the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday cut the funding in the agency’s budget request. The Senate in February unanimously approved the funding for the PSC, which regulates everything from auctioneers to pipelines.

The full House has yet to adopt the budget panel’s recommendation.

“I’m disappointed,” Fedorchak said, adding that she was hopeful the funding would be reinserted by the House, or when House and Senate budget writers meet to work out the differences in the bill.

Opponents of the funding, including Underwood Republican Rep. Jeff Delzer, who is chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said the additional state inspectors are not needed.

“It just grows government and duplicates efforts of the federal government,” Delzer said. “It doesn’t give any additional guarantee of safety.”

Dozens of mile-long trains loaded with crude leave western North Dakota every week, each pulling more than 100 cars laden with about 3 million gallons of North Dakota crude. About 60 percent of the more than 1.1 million barrels of oil produced daily from the Bakken region is being moved by rail.

Oil trains carrying that crude through the U.S. and Canada have been involved in several major accidents in the past two years, including an explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that killed 47 people, and a fiery derailment in Dalrymple’s hometown of Casselton that left an ominous cloud over the city and led some residents to evacuate.

North Dakota Republicans wield supermajority control in the Legislature. Democrats criticized the GOP for not following through on the funding.

“Scrapping the rail safety program represents a broken promise that leaves North Dakota at risk of further rail-related incidents,” said Rep. Ron Guggisberg, D-Fargo. “We’re going to push hard to bring the rail safety program online in the remaining days of the session.”

Fedorchak said the FRA has fewer than a dozen employees in North Dakota though only a two are rail inspectors, who also inspect track in Montana and South Dakota.

The PSC has said rail traffic increased in North Dakota by 233 percent between 2000 and 2012 due to the state’s oil boom. In the last five years, the commission says, the state has seen more than 75 accidents related to track and equipment problems, resulting in more than $30 million worth of damage.

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