Why Care About Rail Safety?

Rail accidents are happening here in our watersheds. Sadly, Wisconsin saw two-train derailments in two days on November 7th and 8th, one of which spilled 18,000 gallons of ethanol into the Mississippi River. We shared our thoughts in an oped to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. [Real the full oped below.]

Railroads run parallel to our waterways and cross them dozens of times making them “virtual pipelines” for hazardous fuels, and when they are in poor condition, they are ultimately endangering the health of our water and our communities. Since 2008, oil train traffic has increased by more than 5,000%, largely due to increased production of Bakken crude oil from North Dakota. This type of oil is shipped with chemicals to keep the oil liquid, which are very combustible. Accompanying this increase in crude oil transportation is an increase in accidents involving shipments of hazardous fuels.

On November 10th, our umbrella organization Waterkeeper Alliance, released “Deadly Crossing: Neglected Bridges & Exploding Oil Trains,” a joint investigative report with Riverkeeper and ForestEthics. The report documents that half of 250 oil train bridges inspected by Waterkeepers in 15 different states showed signs of considerable deterioration, and there are an estimated 100,000 of these bridges across the US.

In June 2016, Milwaukee Riverkeeper signed onto comments submitted to the US Department of Transportation on a federal rulemaking pertaining to train crew staffing. With large volumes of hazardous materials transported daily on our railroads–including explosive and toxic Bakken crude, diluted bitumen from Canada’s tar sands, industrial chemicals–it is essential FRA ensures that each train is operated by a crew of sufficient size working on schedules that provide sufficient rest. Research into the tragic train derailment and explosion at Lac Megántic, Quebec showed that the transition from two- to one-person crews by the railroad played a major part in that tragedy, which killed 47 people, took out dozens of buildings, and caused severe impacts on local waterways. Read the Letter Here.

Take Action Now!

Nationally

Our own state senator, Senator Tammy Baldwin, is working to push better railroad safety reforms. Senator Baldwin introduced the Crude-by-Rail Safety Act, which would require new safety regulations to mitigate the volatility of gasses in Bakken crude oil and immediately halt the use of older-model, high-risk tank cars (known as DOT 111 cars). Please call Senator Baldwin and thank her, and urge Senator Johnson to support this bill.

TAKE ACTION NOW and join Waterkeeper Alliance in demanding that the federal government use its power to protect people, rather than cave to industry pressure. As a first step, Waterkeeper Alliance is calling on the Federal Railroad Administration to ensure that no rail bridge should be allowed to be used for trains shipping oil or other hazardous materials unless it has passed a rigorous, third-party safety inspection.

In Wisconsin

Wisconsin lawmakers also recently introduced legislation, LRB 2463, modelling a law implemented in Minnesota last year, to allocate their own funding for rail safety inspectors, to train first responders, and to require railroads to have emergency prevention and response plans.

Our friends at Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters are asking you to ask your legislators to cosponsor this newly introduced rail safety legislation, which would take necessary steps toward combating these spills, and which would result in fewer spills and more efficient clean up when spills do occur. TAKE ACTION NOW to advance a commonsense rail safety plan in Wisconsin.

Milwaukee Area

In the Milwaukee River Basin, Canadian Pacific operates a major rail route where combustible crude oil is being transported through major urban areas, crosses our local rivers and creeks at least 36 times and runs parallel to our rivers for miles.

In addition to contacting your state legislators, we encourage concerned citizens to reach out to their local elected officials in the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County. Municipalities like Minneapolis, Seattle, and Portland have passed resolutions urging enhanced safety requirements from state and federal governments.

Do you live in a blast zone?

Millions of Americans live in the 1 mile blast zone and will be impacted or even evacuated in case of a train derailment or oil train fire. Our friends at Forest Ethics put together a map that allows you to look up how close you and your family live to the blast zone.

Public deserves effective safety regulations on railroads

By Cheryl Nenn

In light of two train derailments in Wisconsin over the weekend and one on Monday in Iowa, the need for effective railroad safety regulations has never been more urgent or self-evident. What is not evident is the safety of our nation’s railroad infrastructure, because the railroads continue to withhold important safety inspection information from our communities and first responders.

Since 2008, oil train traffic has increased by over 5,000%, largely due to increased production of Bakken oil from North Dakota. Bakken crude oil is highly combustible and sinks to the bottom of waterways, making clean-up and restoration efforts very difficult.

In the Milwaukee River Basin, Canadian Pacific operates a major rail route where combustible crude oil is being transported through major urban areas, crosses our local rivers and creeks at least 36 times and runs parallel to our rivers for miles. These railways have become “virtual pipelines” for hazardous fuels and ultimately endanger the health of our water and our communities. A spill of crude oil into the rivers could cause long-lasting, if not permanent, damage to fish populations and other aquatic life, and threaten Lake Michigan, our drinking water source.

Adding to our concerns is seemingly inadequate maintenance by railroad owners and a lack of federal oversight of safety inspections by the Federal Railroad Administration. As such, the federal government estimates the United States will see an average of 14 oil train accidents per year over the next five years. This is unacceptable.

The inherent risk in carrying hazardous fuels over waterways and through communities is a significant part of the problem, but the lack of transparency from railroad companies is another. Canadian Pacific regularly has refused to supply inspection reports to the City of Milwaukee on “Old Rusty”, the nearly 100-year-old rail bridge at S. 1st St. and Pittsburgh. Its steel girders are so corroded there are visible holes, while combustible oil trains pass just feet from many homes and businesses in the Fifth Ward.

Bowing to public pressure, Canadian Pacific announced that it would cover some of Old Rusty’s degrading steel beams with concrete. But it is unclear whether this work will stabilize the bridge (as no inspection records have been released) or whether it’s just “masking” the surface so people stop complaining.

And Old Rusty is just one of more than 100,000 rail bridges in the U.S. that the public knows little to nothing about, not only with respect to the structural integrity of the tracks but also the kinds of hazardous materials being carried in the tankers. Waterkeeper Alliance, our umbrella organization, just released a report documenting that half of 250 oil train bridges inspected by Waterkeepers across the U.S. showed signs of considerable deterioration. Federal law currently leaves inspection of railroad infrastructure to the railroad owners with little to no government oversight, which is problematic at best.

Thankfully, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) is leading the charge for improved railroad safety, and has authored federal legislation — the Crude by Rail Safety Act — that would require new safety regulations to mitigate the volatility of gasses in Bakken crude oil and immediately halt the use of older, “thin-skinned,” high-risk tank cars such as the kind that spilled ethanol into the Mississippi River Nov. 7. Wisconsin lawmakers also recently introduced legislation in response to increasing concerns of shipping crude oil by rail. Their legislation is modeled after a law implemented in Minnesota last year that allocates funding for state rail safety inspectors and trains first-responders, and requires railroads to have emergency prevention and response plans.

The Milwaukee River flows cleaner today than it has in many decades. It is unthinkable that after starting to recover from decades of legacy pollution, our rivers are now under increasing threat from a crude oil spill that could erase many of our efforts. We can’t afford to endanger the health of our waterways or the safety of our communities while railroads refuse to disclose important safety information to our cities and first responders. The FRA also needs to be empowered to adequately regulate this industry.

Unless changes are made to address rail safety, it is not a question of ifa disastrous spill will occur in Milwaukee; it is a question of when. Our communities and waterways deserve better.