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Public Concern Over Trains Carrying Crude Oil Through Milwaukee

S Bence
Up to 11 trainloads of Bakkan crude pass through Milwaukee every week.

Since mid-February, four accidents in the U.S. and Canada have heightened concerns over transporting oil via rail. None have occurred in Milwaukee, but critics fear it’s just a matter of time. 

So the city’s Public Works Committee took up the issue on Wednesday.

City residents seemed to occupy most of the seats in the meeting room at City Hall, but Alderman Bob Baumann urged them to save their comments.

“The main purpose of this meeting is to let the public know that based on long-standing legal precedent, municipalities across the United states have virtually no control over what operates over the railway system of the United States. That’s all regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration,” Bauman says.

Bauman says what local government can do is prepare to respond to accidents involving flammable oil.

So a few emergency responders talked about their preparations. One is Milwaukee Fire Department Captain Rich Matiszik.

“We’ve all seen the catastrophic failures of the tanks on YouTube. Rest assured that we are not strictly a reactionary force. And I say “we” – the Milwaukee Fire Department, the HazMat Team – We’ve done extensive training on this product, on train cars in general. On many of the trucks that come through with every single chemical, including radiological,” Matiszik says.

But even Alderman Bauman appeared taken aback when battalion chief David Votsis said preparedness for a rail crisis in downtown Milwaukee includes possible evacuation.

“We would evacuate up to ½ mile – up to a half mile. So theoretically you could be evacuating the entire Third Ward and Fifth Ward,” Votsis says.

Learning about Milwaukee’s emergency plans does not mitigate the concerns of Lee Ann Kingston. She attended Wednesday’s meeting and lives at the confluence of the Milwaukee and Menomonee Rivers.

“Every time the train comes by I go to look what’s happening and then I’m thinking should I be prepared to evacuate. Yes, if it happens it would be a huge explosion. The danger is there. And it isn’t just downtown, we should be concerned about. Think about all of the towns and houses that these trains go by,” Kingston says.

Brian Chiu says he shares Kingston’s skepticism. Chiu says he lives “a few feet from the tracks” in the Fifth Ward.

“We canvassed the neighborhood, 100 percent of the people see the oil trains and most of them see the placards that say flammable and it puts a big question mark in their heads. One-third of the people can rattle off the explosions like in Galenathat they know are dangerous. The first question is what do we do in this situation,” Chiu says.

Steven Fronk says concern is healthy. He’s Milwaukee’s director of emergency management and homeland security.

“But I think that in some cases you have to look at what we can do about that concern, whether we are prepared to respond to that concern if something goes bad. You do what you can – it’s a cost benefit analysis,” Fronk says.

Yet Fronk admits, Milwaukee could use more funding.

Today, he’ll be in Madison, attempting to secure a grant to purchase additional chemical foam. Crews apply it after a crude oil spill to tamp down vapors and lessen the chances of explosion.

The public works committee will continue its conversation about accident preparedness, when it meets April 29.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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