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Tracking Danger: Rice Fire Chief Says Derailment Would Overwhelm Department

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- When the railroads were just getting going, trains carried people and supplies and that's how towns were built. Now, trains carry dangerous oil freight, and the small town residents along the tracks are worried.

WCCO's Jennifer Lewerenz continues our five-part series Tracking Danger: Minnesota's Crude Reality.

Rice is a sleepy town of about 1,200 people, but every 15 minutes or so, trains come flying through the heart of it at 50 mph. These trains are carrying a variety of freight, but much of it is oil from the Bakken Oil Fields in North Dakota.

City Fire Chief Scott Janski is in charge of a 24-man volunteer fire crew and says a derailment would overwhelm their department and worries about their ability to respond.

"If things were going bad, they'd be taking care of their families, and it may be where we're calling someone else to take care of our problem," Janski said.

WCCO's Jennifer Lewerenz Reports

Legislation for increased railroad safety inspections and better emergency incident training was signed into Minnesota law in July, but Janski says that only goes so far.

"I've seen their statistics say that the accidents are actually declining, so I'm sure they're doing things on their end to reduce these accidents; but on our end, we're just kind of hanging here hoping that nothing happens," Janski said.

Janski says they can call on 13 other area departments for help, but the closest career department is 17 miles away in St. Cloud. That's where Mayor Dave Kleis says they're prepared as well as they can be in the case of a derailment.

"We have a hazmat team. We train from every aspect on a city. You try to look at every possible scenario, but you can't think of all the things that could happen, but you want to be prepared," Kleis said.

That does little to comfort Amy, who lives near the tracks and says she's afraid of what would happen.

"It's actually kind of scary, because I live in a residential neighborhood where there's lots of kids, and if they're outside playing and there's a train that derails, I mean, they're not really protected,"

Part of Gov. Mark Dayton's transportation plan calls for better training for first responders, infrastructure improvements at rail crossings statewide and asking for railroad companies to pay up in the event of a derailment. It's a plan Kleis can get on board with.

"We're very supportive of making sure that what's coming through our community is transported in a safe manner also because we have an obligation to make sure that the citizens are safe," Kleis said.

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