Houston County commissioners talked about a full slate of topics on Jan. 14.

During the public comment session, Donna Buckbee of Yucatan Township spoke to the board about the threat that a vast increase in shipments of crude oil via railcar pose for residents and the environment.

"There is a possibility that oil from the Bakken (oil) fields has more volatility, has a lower flash point and is more explosive," Buckbee said. "That's what killed 50 people in Lac-Megantic Canada last summer. That's what blew up in North Dakota two weeks ago, and that's what is coming through in greater and greater numbers, even in Houston County...."

"If this is more explosive, we don't know if it's because of the compounds used in the fracking process, or if it's because there's more methane in that oil. But if this is more explosive and they're using defective rail cars on often defective tracks, (and) breaking the speed limit - and there's so much more of this traffic, this is something you all need to know about.

"You cannot be prepared for explosions in the middle of your town."

Buckbee said that she attended a meeting on the dangers of shipping oil via rail with staff from Congressman Tim Walz's office (D-MN) on Jan. 13. Commissioners Teresa Walter and Dana Kjome also said that they were at that session.

Walz serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials. A meeting including Congressmen Ron Kind (D-Wis.) and Walz on rail safety and oil is planned, Buckbee reported. She offered to keep commissioners informed as to when and where that will happen.

One big issue is that 92,000 tank cars are carrying oil on U.S. rails, but only 14,000 of those meet the latest set of safety standards, Buckbee said.

The board approved yearly contributions to 12 local agencies. The list includes $37,500 plus up to $5000 in matching funds to support the Houston County Historical Society, $130,490 for SELCO (libraries) and $10,000 for Semcac's emergency medical service program. The Houston County Agricultural Society will receive $18,000. Bluff Country HRA was approved for $5000. The Southeast Minnesota Initiative Fund will receive $2,700, while SEMAAA (Southeastern Minnesota Area Agency on Aging) will receive $2,000. Four other Semcac programs (RSVP, Senior Driving, Senior Caregiver Advocacy and Senior Nutrition) will receive $1,000 each. Southern Minnesota Tourism/Historic Bluff Country will receive $945.

Commissioners approved three new hires for jailer/dispatch roster (67-day) positions. They include Alissa Stroble, Justin Hesse and Zachary Swedburg.

The board also approved a five-year update to the county's comprehensive water management plan. The amended document covers a wealth of water-related issues including surface and ground water (well) protection, erosion, flooding and more.

Semcac executive director Wayne Stenberg updated the board on that group's activities during 2013.The organization works with 772 different associations and served 32,932 persons in 11 Minnesota counties last year. Everything from senior dining, meals on wheels and food shelf services to rides for those who cannot find a way to get to doctor and dentist appointments fall under numerous Semcac programs.

Semcac transportation director Erlene Welshons said that the organization's bus service is now called "Rolling Hills Transit." A regional dispatch center is being planned to better serve the public.

Stenberg reported that Semcac has lost approximately $395,000 in annual federal funding due to sequestration cuts.

Other news

Commissioners approved a new electronic waste contract for the county's recycling program. Dynamic Recycling of Holmen, Wis., will now accept e-waste, for a price. Environmental Services director Rick Frank said that the company presented the most affordable offer to take everything from old computers and monitors to Fax machines.

Frank also asked the board to approve the 2013 Agricultural Best Management Practices report, which they did. That program provides low interest loans to residents to make improvements to non-conforming septic systems, seal uncased wells and also helps producers who wish to upgrade feedlots with an eye towards improved water quality. The report lists $78,299 in loans for 2013 and anticipates $139,099 worth of projects for 2014.

Commissioners approved a contract with Spring Grove firm Pathfinder CRM to provide an historic structures report on the courthouse. That work will be paid for by a "Legacy" grant, and is one more step towards seeking grant monies to help make repairs to the structure, Houston County EDA Rick Howden said.

Final expenditures from the Recorder's Compliance Fund were approved for 2013 bookkeeping. A portion of the fees collected by the recorder's office sustain the fund, which paid for $52,290 worth of computer hardware, maintenance and contract services.

The board also voted to recognize and congratulate Spring Grove youngster Alex Folz, who won the national Punt Pass and Kick competition for his age group last week in Denver.

Several openings for committee assignments were discussed, but none were voted on. The board now has three finalists for a position on the Planning Commission. The appointments are currently slated for the Jan. 21 commissioner's agenda.