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Train-carried hazmat may go through your town, but you don’t know about it

winona depot
Hazardous materials are being transported by trains through downtown Winona, but who knows what they are?

As part of a series on open government, Nathan Hansen of the Winona Daily News  wrote an article last week outlining his attempts to find out which oversight organization keeps track of dangerous materials transported by trains through downtown Winona. The upshot? Most of the myriad local, county, state and federal safety organizations don’t keep track. Hansen found that only the company that owns the tracks in Winona, Canadian Pacific, knows what’s on the trains and provides that information to the Surface Transportation Board and the Transportation Safety Administration, but none of them will say what’s on the trains “for security reasons.” One would assume they are referring to potential acts of terrorism. But your gentle news compiler remembers another incident in 2002 when a derailment one-half mile outside Minot sent a cloud of anhydrous ammonia into town. Anhydrous ammonia is used in fertilizers and it is deadly to anything that breathes oxygen. The National Transportation Safety Board’s report in 2004 sums it up neatly: 31 cars in a 112-car train derailed because a rail joint was broken. Five cars carrying anhydrous ammonia ruptured, sending a plume of gas into Minot. One man died, 11 people sustained serious injuries and 322 people sustained minor injuries. NTSB’s recommendations: Make sure the tracks aren’t broken and make sure the cars carrying the gas have thicker steel, but not a word about keeping the gas away from densely populated areas.

The Office of the Legislative Auditor’s report outlining the burden that special education mandates have on school districts was not news to some Central Minnesota districts. Danielle Cintron of the St. Cloud Daily Times outlined the problem: The state mandates the special-education services that districts are required to provide, but doesn’t supply enough money to fund the services. That means districts have to take money meant to pay for other education to fund special education. This is called a cross-subsidy, and the OLA report says 33 percent of special-education budgets come from districts’ general funds and local operating levies. This isn’t supposed to happen. The St. Cloud school district brings $8.6 million from the general budget to cover unfunded special-education costs. The Sartell-St. Stephen and Sauk Rapids-Rice districts both have $1.7 million in cross-subsidies. “Roughly 14 percent of the state’s public school students are in a special education program. Both Sauk Rapids-Rice and St. Cloud are above the state average, with 19 percent and 21.9 percent of their student populations in special education respectively. Sartell-St. Stephen matches the state average at 14 percent,” Cintron wrote. Gov. Mark Dayton has addressed the funding issue in his budget proposal. Cintron quotes St. Cloud Superintendent Bruce Watkins: “We’re hoping the Legislature recognizes this audit and recognizes the need to increase funding to special education. We also hope that legislators read this report and understand why (Gov. Mark Dayton’s) budget proposal has an increase to special education.”

The first several paragraphs of this story in the Fargo Forum says it all: “The victim of a brutal sexual assault (in East Grand Forks) last May said she was ‘shattered’ when a Crookston judge sentenced one of her attackers to less than a year in jail. The ‘presumptive’ minimum sentence for the first-degree criminal sexual conduct to which Jose Soto Jr. pleaded guilty is 12 years in prison under Minnesota guidelines; the maximum is 30 years. But state District Judge Jeffrey Remick sentenced Soto, 37, to 364 days in jail and 30 years of supervised probation. With credit for time served since his arrest on the charge May 19, Soto walked out of the jail in Crookston on March 4 within about an hour of his sentencing hearing. His victim stormed out of the courtroom before the hearing was over. ‘I didn’t want to be disrespectful,’ she said Friday. ‘But I was livid and upset, and I had to get out of there. I wanted to say to the judge, ‘What the hell were you thinking?’ ” The story continues: “East Grand Forks police detective Chris Olson said that in his 17 years in law enforcement, he’s never seen a sentence so poorly fit a crime. ‘He served nine months and 17 days and walked out of jail,’ said Olson. ‘It was a pretty brutal assault. She was bruised from head to toe.’ Soto’s defense attorney (Joel Arnason of Grand Forks) admitted he, too, was surprised by the sentence, although it was in line with his own recommendation.” The other attacker, Ismael Hernandez, 31, of Larimore, N.D., has also been found guilty of the same charge and is scheduled to be sentenced April 1. The victim is a mother of three and in her mid-20s.

The battle over the school year starting date is softening. For years, debate raged as to whether school should start after Labor Day. Tourism-heavy areas needed their student employees to stay on staff. Non-tourism areas wanted to get the year started. Three years ago, 25 school districts in Southwestern Minnesota got the go-ahead to try a flexible learning year. At a school board meeting Monday, Marshall Superintendent Klint Willert said most of the districts have been approved for another three years, writes Jenny Kirk of the Marshall Independent. Of the original 25, Canby and Tracy are opting out, she wrote.

It’s been a bad winter for septic systems, writes Carolyn Lange of the West Central Tribune in Willmar. “The lack of snow early on in the season and extreme weather conditions has resulted in pipes freezing up in some septic systems, which prevents pumps from getting sewage from the home to the tank. The problem has gotten so bad in Minnesota this year that Gov. Mark Dayton said a state of emergency exists. On Friday he issued an emergency executive order that will allow commercial vehicles used to haul sewage to ignore recently imposed seasonal load limits on roads. The order goes into effect immediately and will stay in place through June 1,” she wrote. She interviewed Kurt Garberich, co-owner of Kandi Lakes Septic Service of Lake Lillian. He said he’s had 10 to 12 customers with frozen septic systems this winter. Those emergency fix-it situations, combined with spring road weight limits that went into effect this week in much of the state, can make it difficult for septic companies to service customers.

Sugarbeet prices are falling, which worries the American Sugarbeet Growers Association which had its 51st International Sugarbeet Institute in Fargo last Wednesday, writes Mikkel Pates in the Grand Forks Herald. Sugar prices have plummeted from the high levels of the past three years, said Luther Markwart, the association’s executive vice president. He said prices could hit the level where companies can forfeit sugar to the government when prices fall below loan levels. Sugar prices were high in 2011 and 2012 because of droughts in Brazil, India and Australia, Markwart said. But beet and cane sugar bumper crops in the U.S. and Mexico are bringing prices down. As for Minnesota’s sugar co-op, American Crystal Sugar Co., prices for the 2012 crop is above $65 per ton, but that is buoyed by the higher sugar prices that will dissipate. The co-op has no outstanding loans for forfeiture isn’t a danger, one lobbyist said.

Who says girls aren’t good at the hard sciences? Four girls from Martin County West Junior High School will participate in the state Math Counts competition, writes Jenn Brookens of the Fairmont Sentinel. Karen McConnell, a Math Counts coach, said “It's an all-girl team, which is very exciting for us, because when you go to these math competitions, there are an overwhelming number of boys there.” The team is eighth-graders Emily Ziemer and Maggie Bachenberg, seventh-grader Jordan Stahl and sixth-grader Abby Bachenberg. “They're seeing things from algebra, geometry, even a little bit of trig. There are a lot of logical and reasoning problems, because they're all word problems,” McConnell said. The top four students at the state competition will become the team from Minnesota at the national competition in Washington, D.C. “That would make me so nervous, going there alone,” Ziemer said. “Then we all need to tie for first,” Maggie Bachenberg said. Here’s McConnell’s postscript: “We appreciate 3M sponsoring us, because they have covered our competition fees. … We are so proud of these girls because they worked really hard, and I really am psyched that it's an all-girl team. I really felt they could do this and they have.”

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Train-carried hazmat

If you want to know if something in a rail-car (or truck) is hazardous all you need to do is find the UN number, It will be on a large colored placard on the side of the car near the end. Rather have it on the rail then on the road.

UN1978 Propane see also Petroleum gases, liquefied
UN1202III Gas oil or Diesel fuel or Heating oil, light
UN1043 Fertilizer ammoniating solution with free ammonia