Demonstrators use Canadian train catastrophe’s anniversary to spotlight crude oil concerns

By Dave Fidlin - Special to The Freeman

July 8, 2015

   Brian Chiu, a resident in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood, and a group of organizers discuss concerns about the impact of Bakken oil trains traversing through Milwaukee and other densely populated areas.
Dave Fidlin/Special to The Freeman

MILWAUKEE - As they held up various signs - many reading, “Ban the Bomb Train” -  more than a dozen Milwaukee-area demonstrators raised concerns about the shipment of crude oil across major rail lines during a news conference Tuesday.

The event’s timing coincided with the second anniversary of a rail disaster in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. On July 7, 2013, an unattended 74-car freight train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed, killing 47 people and destroying several dozen buildings in the small Canadian community’s downtown area.

While the catastrophe occurred many miles from Milwaukee, the same freight train, transporting that same crude oil, traveled through Southeastern Wisconsin.

“That explosion could’ve happened here,” said Brian Chiu, a resident who lives in Walker’s Point, a Milwaukee neighborhood known for its intricate system of rail lines. Chiu lives near railroad tracks that carry tank cars with crude oil.

The structural integrity of the railroad tracks in the Walker’s Point area has come under scrutiny as road salt and other factors have eroded some of the steel beams and other structures used to transport cargo.

Canadian Pacific, which oversees the rail line, reportedly has inspected the area, but has yet to publicly release its findings for the infrastructure, which is a year shy of reaching the centennial mark.

   Cheryl Nenn of Milwaukee Riverkeeper discusses the organization’s view of the oil trains. She asserts the trains can have an adverse impact on the environment.
Dave Fidlin/Special to The Freeman

While several organizers at Tuesday’s event called on Canadian Pacific officials to release its findings expeditiously, others took a more big-picture approach to the issue.

Eric Hansen, who represents the Milwaukee chapter of Citizens Acting for Rail Safety, or CARS, called on leaders in Milwaukee and other nearby communities to adopt an action plan if an oil tanker were to derail and cause an explosion.

“This is common sense, just like a tornado drill,” Hansen said. “The fact is there aren’t enough emergency responders to immediately address this kind of situation.”

Environmentalists are also weighing in on oil-transporting trains. Cheryl Nenn of Milwaukee Riverkeeper, an organization devoted to restoring the condition of Milwaukee’s three rivers, said oil tankers traverse across the trio of waterways 36 times daily.

Those same oil tankers also traverse across 10 other Wisconsin counties, including Waukesha, Racine and Kenosha, before emptying into Illinois.

   Eric Hansen of the Milwaukee chapter of Citizens Acting for Rail Safety, or CARS, says the group is pushing for tough legislation concerning oil trains in Wisconsin.
Dave Fidlin/Special to The Freeman

“We’re very concerned about this,” Nenn said. “There have been a lot of loopholes, and we would like to see some kind of environmental spill response plan.”

 While railways have long been used to transport crude oil, the scenario has grown exponentially in recent years as the Mississippi River corridor has been eyed as a pivotal pathway to transport crude oil from the Bakken fields in Montana and North Dakota to refineries.

While there is one alternative to transporting crude oil - doing so by pipeline - the method is not expected to dominate the industry any time soon. Rail shipments, according to analysts, are viewed as more cost-effective.

Other organizations, including the Association of American Railroads, work with Canadian Pacific on issues pertaining to the rail system. The AAR has asserted steps are being taken to prevent future catastrophes.