- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 19, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana’s Public Service Commission hopes to come up with a rail safety plan within six months after a report criticized the agency for having never written one, even as the train traffic carrying volatile crude from the Bakken oil patch has increased.

The commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to complete a risk assessment and safety plan by November, which would give them enough time to request money from the 2017 Legislature to hire more inspectors, if necessary.

A report released in October by the Legislative Audit Division faulted the PSC for not identifying rail safety risks, not having a safety plan, not having enough inspectors to adequately cover the state and not participating in regional safety issues. It said the agency is not actively engaged in rail safety, and its lone goal seems to be meeting a minimum number of inspections each year.

The report also found there’s a lack of statewide emergency planning and hazardous-material response capability should an oil spill occur. It recommended more coordination with local, state and national planners, as well as adding a third inspector to check rail lines, cars and engines.

Since the audit came out, one of the state’s two inspectors retired. PSC spokesman Eric Sell said the commissioners’ vote Tuesday authorized the agency to replace that inspector, but it will take at least two months to do so.

“It’s our goal that we can hire someone already … certified so they can start inspecting on day one,” Sell said.

The Public Service Commission partners with the Federal Railroad Administration in overseeing rail lines in Montana. The U.S. government has jurisdiction over railroad safety, but the state voluntarily participates in sharing the oversight.

The federal agency has three inspectors whose territory includes Montana, and the railway companies operating in the state also employ their own inspectors.

Trains carrying Bakken crude have derailed in six states in recent years. Last year, an oil train spilled 35,000 gallons near the northeastern Montana town of Culbertson. That area was highlighted in the audit for its lack of equipment and trained manpower to respond to a spill.

The state’s risk assessment will address hazardous materials, with an emphasis on the Bakken oil trains. It will also cover mechanical defects, train traffic and schedules, track and environmental conditions, railroad company policies and practices, inter-agency coordination, and the location of equipment and personnel who can respond to emergencies.

That would be the foundation of the safety plan, which will explain how the agency’s resources are allocated, according to an agency memo outlining the plan.

The commission delayed a decision on whether to ask state lawmakers for money for additional resources and personnel until the results of the assessment and safety plan are known.

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