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Wisconsin Tanker Accidents Fuel Some Milwaukee Residents' Concerns

S Bence

Two tanker derailments over the weekend in Wisconsin have put some people on edge. On Saturday, more than 18,000 gallons of ethanol cascaded out of train cars not far from the Mississippi River.

A day later, in Watertown, 13 Canadian Pacific cars overturned. One punctured, allowing a thousand gallons of crude oil to escape, and forcing officials to evacuate 35 homes.

These events are heightening existing concerns in Milwaukee, where crude-filled cars routinely pass through downtown, close to condos and offices.

Susan Bietila stands beneath the railroad bridge at 1st Street and Oregon in Milwaukee’s Fifth Ward.

Credit S Bence

  “We’ve got total rust covered pillars. Behind the pillar closest to us, the iron is eaten away by rust,” Bietila says.

The retired nurse says until last spring she didn’t realize up to 11 trainloads of crude oil pass over this spot every week.

“And then we find up, the history of the bridges is public information. We found out this bridge is 99 years old. And the way infrastructure has been decaying in this country you’ve got to worry what that state of this is like,” Bietila says.

Bietila is part of an increasingly vocal group calling itself Citizens Acting for Rail Safety.

It caught the ear of Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, who pushed for an inspection of this very visible bridge.

The Federal Railroad Administration jumped and audited Canadian Pacific’s own inspection.

Although officials declared the bridge safe, the company still plans to encase its steel columns in concrete.

Eric Hansen is not appeased.

He’s another member of the rail safety group.

“There’s been no independent engineering agreement that putting concrete around these pillars is a good idea. Much, much more needs doing. Number one, the citizens need informing. Number two, the secrecy has to go. This is craziness,” Hansen says.

Milwaukee Alderman Terry Witkowski admits to frustration.

He says, since last April, city leaders have passed the issue of public safety from one committee to another. Most recently, it went before Steering and Rules.

“The feedback we got came from the railroad saying that we inspect track weekly and bridges once a year,” Witkowski says.

Witkowski says city leaders asked to see Canadian Pacific’s inspection report for the bridge at 1st and Oregon.

“We cannot get the railroad to say anything other than the fact that they have inspected the bridge and take our word for it there is nothing wrong with it. We would like,” Witkowski says.

At a meeting in late October, the committee pressed Canadian Pacific spokesperson Herb Jones to make bridge and rail reports public.

He cited a litany of reasons why not.

“These are technical reports written by engineering professionals. They’ aren’t written as public documents any more than I would say if your doctor conducts a physical, he’s putting together a report for those purposes, not for public consumption. He’s putting documents together in terms that are written for medical professionals. And there are a number of reasons, including security sensitivity issues that would be of concern as well,” Jones said.

Jones described Canadian Pacific’s safety track record as long and solid.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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