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Guest editorial: Keep focus on Bakken oil trains

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Another shoe dropped last week on a story that seems to have more feet than a centipede. The U.S. Department of Transportation ordered railroads to send states estimates of how much oil moves through their borders in railroad tank cars. The order was prompted by a "pattern of releases and fires involving petroleum crude oil shipments originating in the Bakken" oil play in North Dakota and Montana.

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It's an emergency order. DOT recognizes that the danger of volatile Bakken crude, in combination with older tank cars that rupture in derailments, is a public safety emergency. The order also urges, but does not order, shippers to stop using an older model tank car that has been involved in several oil fires and explosions during the past year.

It's a major development for oil producers, shippers and refiners. But, most importantly, the order signals to at-risk communities along rail lines that government regulators are serious about the situation. When state or local emergency services personnel are candid, they readily concede that a multitank-car explosion in a densely populated urban district will cause incredible damage and likely kill and injure a lot of people. No emergency evacuation plan can be activated quickly enough to prevent damage and death.

But even if there is (there will be) another fiery derailment, oil traffic from the Bakken to points east will not decrease, nor should it. Therefore, the best strategies are to intensify emphasis on safety on the rails. Among the ways to do that: slower train speeds through cities; enhanced development of safer tank cars; honest assessment of the unique volatility of Bakken crude. The DOT order moves in the right direction.

This is serious business, and not merely the business of business. It has become a public safety matter that has taken on unprecedented proportions since the fatal oil train accident in Quebec and the spectacular oil car derailment and explosions near Casselton, N.D. No regulator, no rail official, no oil company can afford to misread or ignore the depth of public concern.

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