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Emily Welker, Published March 19 2014

Heitkamp town hall meeting in Fargo focuses on oilfield worries

FARGO – During Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s town hall meeting at Carl Ben Eielson Middle School here Wednesday, more than a little of the focus was on western North Dakota.

Ron Guggisberg, a member of the state House from Fargo and a Fire Department captain, talked about development in the state’s Oil Patch and accompanying concerns with railroad safety.

“It seems like North Dakota’s taking on a lot of risk,” he said.

“What are you doing in Washington to prevent that?” he asked, referring to a fiery derailment near Casselton in December.

Heitkamp agreed, and said she is conducting a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee hearing next week with testimony from Casselton Fire Chief Tim McLean.

She cautioned the crowd of about 40 people that pipelines won’t ever completely replace rail transport, and called for better training for first responders.

She also said tougher oversight on subcontractors is crucial to improving safety.

“People see us as ‘you’re going to tolerate us because you’re getting the economic benefit,’ ” she said of public perception outside the state. “But there’s going to be a chain reaction all down the rails from these communities.”

Another attendee expressed dismay over a recent report on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow show alleging that oil companies are dumping waste in the state and being fined for what he thought were negligible amounts.

Heitkamp said she was “saddened and shocked” by the allegations in the story, and while some have suggested a federal agency be created to crack down on corporate polluters, she said the first line of defense are state regulators.

“This should never have happened,” she said. “I don’t know how you can defend that.”

Heitkamp also tackled questions about the recently passed farm bill and accompanying trade agreements and her voting record on gun control.

Finally, the father of a little girl asked about educational opportunities for girls and equal pay for women.

Support legislation, like the Lilly Ledbetter Act that gives women a chance to fight discrimination in pay, Heitkamp said. And she said women should be encouraged to run for office, which they do less often than men.

“It’s important to model good behavior,” she said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Welker at (701) 241-5541