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Environment

Milwaukee Leaders Press Railroad Execs on Safety of Oil Transport

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Susan Bence
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Up to 11 trainloads of Bakkan crude oil pass through Milwaukee every week

UPDATE:  Earlier this month, emergency responders told the the city's public works committee that if a rail crisis occurred in downtown Milwaukee up to a half mile area might be evacuated. That topic reverberated again at today's meeting.

It was attended by Canadian Pacific Railway representatives and Wisconsin Commissioner of Railroads Jeff Plale.

Milwaukee resident Eric Hansen pressed Commissioner Plale. "Does the state of Wisconsin have a figure of how many of our citizens are within that half-mile zone and what are the plans to prepare them for this eventuality?" he asked.

Plale said the state is in the process of assessing existing emergency plans "to start to collect that data and start trying to get a little more statistically based."

"But it is certainly meetings like this that are getting the message out there to folks to again, be alert, be prepared, but not to be panicked," he added.

Alderman Terry Witkowsi asked if the railway company would contribute to public education and preparedness. "Because what I'm hearing is the City of Milwaukee should have the taxpayers cough up money to run an education program," he said. "How willing are the railroads to do something like this. What is your role in notifying the public?"

Railway emergency response manager Dale Buckholtz says Canadian Pacific's role is to train local emergency teams "to send first responders to crud -by-rail training, advanced tank car training. And in the case of Milwaukee, very often, at least every other year or so, we do a specialized training with the city Hazmat team."

After Wednesday's meeting, Alderman Witkowski, who chairs the city's public safety committee, announced he has drafted legislation calling for federal legislation to increase "overall safety on rail line and the frequency of rail inspections."

In his April 29 press release, Witkowski stated, "It is clear that we need state and federal regulators to set up and make sure these bridges, tracks and crossings are safe enough for Bakken crude trains, and that is what my legislation is asking for."

STORY that aired earlier today:  Milwaukee leaders are concerned about a growing number of oil tanker cars criss-crossing the city – in some cases, right through residential areas.

A Common Council hearing Wednesday will focus on the risks to residents should a train car derail.

Many more freight trains are rumbling along local rail lines in recent years, mainly due to the rise in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” The technique uses sand and water to extract oil. The fracking boom has been great for the rail industry, and frustrating for local officials who are concerned about safety risks, but have no power to intervene.

Railroads are the federal government’s jurisdiction.

“We could not stop these trains if we wanted to," says Milwaukee Ald. Bob Bauman. "We could not regulate the level of inspection of bridges and track if we wanted to. We could not regulate the design of freight cars or the type of freight cars that are used to transport oil if we wanted to."

Bauman says all the city can do is prepare for a possible emergency. And that’s not entirely out of the question.

Three years ago, a freight train crashed in Quebec, killing 47 people and forcing thousands to evacuate. That train had passed through Milwaukee. And in just the last few months, four other trains have crashed in Canada and the U.S, including one in northwestern Illinois.

Still, derailments are rare, according to Milwaukee Fire Department Captain Rich Matiszik.

“It’s an incredibly safe mode of travel," he says. "They don’t have a lot of accidents. If you look at numbers, there’s been a lot of crude oil spilled in the last year, versus the last four decades, but it’s incredibly safe as far as the numbers go. They don’t derail very often, and when they do, they don’t spill very often."

“It only takes one accident to kill a lot of people,” says Shorewood resident Julie Enslow, who spoke at a committee meeting on the issue a few weeks ago. “There’s no room for error in this area. So I do encourage you to really challenge the people that need to be challenged, influence those who need to be influenced, and really ask who’s profiting from all of this and who should be liable for of it?”

Aldermen hope to press railroad executives Wednesday. A council staffer says officials with Canadian Pacific and Canadian National have indicated they will attend the council meeting.

Fire Captain Matiszik says the city’s relationship with rail companies has been good, especially when it comes to planning and safety.

“We, every year or so, we’ll get together in the rail yard down in the valley and get together and actually physically get up on the train cars, look at the different kinds and that type of thing, and then there’s just a lot of studying on our part, a lot of reading, a lot of trying to figure out the best way to handle things,” he says.

Milwaukee officials say the city’s hazmat team is well equipped to respond to any emergency, and plans are in place to evacuate if residents are in danger.

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