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Minnesota Rep. Paul Torkelson offers a huge welfare giveaway to railroad industry

A catastrophe like the derailment in Quebec would likely result in hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars in damage. Torkelson wants to cap the railroad's liability at $3 million. The public will pick up the rest of the tab.

A catastrophe like the derailment in Quebec would likely result in hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars in damage. Torkelson wants to cap the railroad's liability at $3 million. The public will pick up the rest of the tab.

The tourist town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec became a war zone in an instant.

In 2013, a 74-car railroad train carrying Bakken crude derailed in the middle of the little city of 5,000. Multiple tankers exploded, resulting in what was described as a "tsunami of fire" that could be felt more than a mile away.

Six million gallons of spilled petrol fed the blaze as thousands evacuated. Thirty buildings near the town's center were razed. Officials would confirm the death toll at 42. Five more people, "presumed dead," were believed to have been vaporized in the blast.    

In the disaster's aftermath, the Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic Railway would be inundated with lawsuits and insurance claims in excess of $300 million. It filed for bankruptcy the following month. The company's insurance policy topped out at $25 million.

Rep. Paul Torkelson (R-Hanska), chairman of the Minnesota House Transportation Finance Committee, is currently working hard to make sure a similar disaster is averted.

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But Torkelson's efforts have nothing to do with protecting people. He's trying to protect railroads by pushing a bill that would cap their corporate liability at a mere $3 million.

The Twin Cities Western Railway Company's tracks run parallel the proposed Southwest light rail line from downtown Minneapolis into Hopkins. The company's trains regularly haul mile-long processions of ethanol tankers, 100 cars or more filled with highly-explosive cargo.

The railway already carries hazardous materials insurance. But the risk of a catastrophic event skyrockets if SWLRT, with its overhead sparking wires, is built only ten feet away from the freight tracks, as is planned by the Met Council.

The risk is so great and insurance so costly — estimated at a $28 million annual premium for $1 billion in coverage — that TC&W doesn't want to do it. And the Met Council wants its new light rail line built. Badly. 

Enter Torkelson.

Under his bill, taxpayers would be on the cuff for any and all environmental clean-up and infrastructure above the $3 million mark. Moreover, the families of those killed or injured, or those left homeless or jobless, would be on the cuff for all costs above $3 million if catastrophe should strike.  

Torkelson's initiative, in effect, establishes a limited liability zone for all railroads operating along the SWLRT shared right-of-way. This area runs near roughly 60,000 residents, who would be denied any legal recourse.  

Using that figure and extrapolating Lac Megantic's death toll, a similar explosion in the Twin Cities would result in 564 casualties. 

The Minneapolis home where Mary Pattock has lived at since 1968 isn't a half block from the TC&W tracks.

"People need to know how dangerous this is and it could ruin their lives," she says. "It could kill them. It could bankrupt them. They could lose everything they have and that all seems to be okay with the Met Council and [many in] the legislature."  

Despite opposition from lawmakers like Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Minneapolis) and Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis), various citizens groups like Citizens Acting for Rail Safety, the Park Board, and Minneapolis Fire Chief John Freutel, the bill is expected to pass.

Which means the only thing stopping it from becoming law is Governor Mark Dayton's veto.

Torkelson did not respond to repeated messages seeking comment. Neither did Sen. Bruce Anderson (R-Buffalo), the author of the Senate's companion bill.