On Sunday, September 13, Milwaukee Riverkeeper co-hosted “Convergence at the Confluence” with our friends at Citizens Acting for Rail Safety (CARS)Citizens Acting for Rail Safety (CARS). We met at the confluence of the Menomonee and Milwaukee Rivers, under a 100-year old railroad swing bridge to highlight the dangers of shipping crude oil by rail over and along our waterways.

The swing bridge is just one of dozens that cross our local waterways. Railroads often run parallel to our rivers for dozens of miles, making our railroads “virtual pipelines” that endanger the health of our rivers and Lake Michigan. The Milwaukee River flows cleaner today than it has in many decades, and it is unthinkable that as we are finally recovering from decades of legacy pollution that our rivers are now under threat from a crude oil spill that could erase our efforts to bring them back to health.

Nationally, oil train traffic has increased more than 4,000% in the last five years. In our Milwaukee River Basin, Canadian Pacific operates a major rail route, where an estimated 11-14 trains per week carry combustible crude oil through our major urban areas and across our rivers, exposing our communities and our waterways to the considerable risk of oil spills. Crude oil from North Dakota (“Bakken crude”) is shipped with gas and other chemicals to keep it in liquid form, consequently making it highly combustible. Our national rail network is in poor condition, with single “hulled” rail tank cars making up the majority of U.S. oil tanker trains. These tankers have serious structural flaws that make them prone to puncture and explosion during a derailment.

In response to public concern, several Federal Agencies including the Department of Transportation and Federal Railroad Administration, are requiring some limited reporting for trains carrying more than 1,000,000 gallons of Bakken crude (around 33 rail cars). These weak regulations also allow disaster-prone rail cars to stay on the rails for decades. In addition, while railroads are required to inspect bridges and railroads carrying this type of cargo, they are not required to share this information with Federal regulators or even with communities they pass through.

An oil spill of any kind poses serious environmental and economic consequences, but a spill of “heavy” crude oil (like Canadian tar sands oil) would be especially difficult to clean-up since it sinks to the bottom of waterways. Oil can stay in sediment for more than thirty years after a spill. Also our Milwaukee River Estuary exhibits a seiche effect, where Lake Michigan surges into our rivers and estuary causing water to (at times) flow both ways. This seiche effect could make any spill response very challenging as oil could spread up and down river. Cleanup of oil spills during winter months when rivers are frozen would also be very difficult, if not impossible.
A crude oil spill into the rivers would cause long-lasting, if not permanent, damage to populations of fish and aquatic life. A spill could also impact public safety, threaten our drinking water supply, and impact tourism and other shoreline resources. This is all a recipe for disaster.

  • We support the creation of new safety rules that address oil tank rail car design, alternate routing through cities, reduced speed limits, better preparation for emergency responders, and plans for cleaning up oil spills in our waterways.
  • We support Senator Tammy Baldwin’s introduction of the Crude by Rail Safety Act of 2015Crude by Rail Safety Act of 2015, which would require new safety regulations to mitigate the volatility of gases in Bakken crude oil and immediately halt the use of older-model “high risk” tank cars.
  • We support immediate action to eliminate a 1996 loophole that only railcars with capacities larger than 1,000 barrels would need oil spill response plans (when most individual railcars carry less than this amount).
  • We support rail and infrastructure improvements and investment.
    We support the State of Wisconsin increasing its capacity to inspect railroad infrastructure and prevent and respond to oil spill accidents.
  • We support transparency of inspection and safety information of railroad bridges and other infrastructure.

Our communities and first responders are entitled to this information, as well as the general public.

The idea of a rail accident in our area is not speculation. Two years ago, a Bakken oil train passing through Milwaukee—over the confluence bridge we paddled under at our event—went on to explode in Lac Megantic, Quebec killing 47 people and destroying 30 buildingsLac Megantic, Quebec killing 47 people and destroying 30 buildings. Unless changes are made to rail safety, it is not a question of if a disastrous spill will occur on or near the Milwaukee River, it is a question of when.