MADISON, Wis. (WSAU) -- Railcar fires over the past year prompted the U.S. Department of Transportation to issue an emergency order requiring railroads to tell emergency management officials before transporting large trainloads of Bakken oil. So far, the railroads and the state and local authorities haven’t figured out exactly how to do that yet. Wisconsin Emergency Management Information Officer Tod Pritchard says everyone involved is working on it, but for now, no reports are being logged yet. “The U.S Department of Transportation has given everyone a 30-day window to get a system in place, so we have a few more weeks before that expires, so we’re still working on trying to get the system set up to make sure we’ve got all of the notifications in place, and trying to figure out what’s the best way to communicate that information.”
The federal order defines a large shipment of oil as a train with over one million gallons. That’s approximately 30 tank cars or more before emergency management has to be informed. Pritchard says one car spilling is a mess that requires a rapid and well-executed response, but the federal government defined what a “large” shipment of oil is, and they will have to work with it.
Pritchard believes the railroads are not likely to split up the tank cars to separate trains to avoid the reporting requirement. “The rail companies are sending through so much of this Bakken oil through our area that it’s probably going to be a situation where, for economic reasons, they’re going to ship that many rail cars or more at any given time to kind of keep up with demand.”
Wisconsin’s 3rd District Congressman Ron Kind is pleased that the DOT is taking this step requiring reporting, but doesn’t believe it goes far enough. “It’s a start. I think more transparency, more information to local communities about what’s being shipped through their backyard is important, and I don’t want the notification to just stop at the first responders in the community, but the public at large needs to know what’s going on, too.”
Kind believes part of the responsibility for handling emergencies should be the railroad’s responsibility and expense. “The railroad has got to step up, as far as training funds for local communities, as far as track inspections, as far as upgrading the aged fleet, so that we get better railcars that are safer in case there is some form of derailment, and then slowing down the traffic, too.”
Kind has been talking with officials at Fort McCoy near Sparta about the possibility of having their hazardous materials response team ready and available for spill containment and cleanup. Those discussions are in the early stages.
Both Pritchard and Kind are also concerned about transporting oil on certain railroads, such as the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe mainline between the Twin Cities and Illinois, which runs just a few feet from the Mississippi River for much of the route. Both are concerned that a petroleum spill on that track would be extremely difficult to contain and clean up, and would affect the river all the way to New Orleans.
(Listen to our interviews with Congressman Ron Kind and Emergency Management Information Officer Tod Pritchard on our website, by using the hyperlinks on their names here.)