By Cole Grant/UM Legislative News Service
HELENA – About 10 people testified Wednesday for a bill that would create a task force to help communities prepare for and respond to incidents involving hazardous materials.
Democratic Rep. Denise Hayman of Bozeman said she’s carrying House Bill 296 “to bring the experts together to discuss how we might be better prepared to respond to a disaster, especially in our more remote, rural areas.”
The bill references a 2015 legislative audit on railway safety that found “the lack of statewide emergency planning for hazardous material incidents leads to weaknesses in local emergency planning systems.”
According to the audit, “183,047 residents, about 20 percent of the state population, live in evacuation zones for an oil train derailment, and in those zones are 47 medical centers, 169 fire stations, and 353 schools.”
The task force would be made up of 12 people, including two state senators and two state representatives, one each from the majority and minority party.
Matt Jones with BNSF Railway, like other opponents, said safety is always a number one priority.
“But we don’t think that creating a new organization to look at these issues that are being undertaken by existing agencies with expertise and jurisdiction over these matters will benefit the public interest,” Jones said.
Jim Lewis of Montana Rail Link said they don’t have a position on the bill, because they “welcome discussions regarding safety.”
The State Administration Committee did not immediately vote on the bill.
Cole Grant is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.