A ferocious explosion and fireball followed a Wisconsin Central train wreck in the frigid predawn hours of March 4, 1996, in Weyauwega, Wisconsin. Two thousand citizens, many fleeing without their pets or medications, evacuated for 18 days as the fires burned.
Authorities feared additional explosions that would catapult shrapnel a mile or more from the derailed propane tank cars. Gas lines were shut off; water pipes froze in unheated houses.
Four days after the initial explosion, Wisconsin National Guard armored personnel carriers transported residents into the danger zone to rescue their pets. Wearing helmets and flak jackets, the evacuees dashed into their abandoned homes to retrieve hungry dogs, cats and parakeets.
Ever so slowly, specialists drained the railroad tank cars of their volatile cargo and Weyauwega pulled back from the brink. Federal investigators blamed a cracked rail and deficient track maintenance for the derailment.
March 4, 2016 is the 20th anniversary of the Weyauwega catastrophe. Unfortunately, railroad track failures remain a concern today — a concern greatly magnified by massive increases in explosive crude oil train traffic in recent years.
Wisconsin, now one of the busiest routes in the nation for this dangerous cargo, is part of a nationwide surge. In 2008, railroads carried 9,500 tank carloads of crude oil in the United States. By 2013, that number had risen to 407,761.
Connect the dots on the systemic danger the oil trains bring — and the details of the Weyauwega incident — and a reasonable citizen would question whether a Weyauwega scale disaster, or worse, is looming.
Key points: highly explosive crude oil from North Dakota is traveling in tank cars that are aging and were never designed with this kind of volatile cargo in mind. In addition, the sheer weight of mile-long oil trains stresses railroad tracks and aging bridges.
Those concerns grew when a Canadian government investigation traced the path of an oil train that exploded in Lac Megantic, Quebec on July 6, 2013, killing 47 people.. The train had traveled through Wisconsin and Milwaukee on Canadian Pacific tracks before exploding in Quebec.
As knowledge of the dangers of oil train traffic spread, something else became clear: a lack of transparency on the part of the railroads. Milwaukee citizens, local elected officials and journalists sought to obtain safety inspection reports for the corroded, century-old, 1st St. railroad bridge.
Canadian Pacific railroad officials refused to share the inspection reports for half a year. Federal Railroad Administration director Sarah Feinberg announced a new program to obtain bridge safety reports on Feb. 19, 2016, indicating some progress.
But bridge inspection reports are only the tip of the iceberg. Railroads are not sharing information on what levels of insurance they carry, their worst-case accident scenario plans or how they make critical routing decisions that bring oil trains through densely populated areas.
Any illusion that federal regulators are exercising effective due diligence on oil train traffic faded when the Department of Transportation released an audit of the FRA on Feb. 26, 2016.
That report’s opening words cite the Lac Megantic disaster and the vast increase in crude oil train traffic. However, the audit summarizes FRA’s overview of oil train traffic as dysfunctional and lacking analysis on the impact to towns, cities and major population areas. It also notes a lack of criminal penalties for safety violations.
When citizens push, governments move into action. Insist that your elected representatives take effective action to protect our communities from dangerous crude oil train traffic.
Outdoor writer Eric Hansen is a member of Citizens Acting for Rail Safety - Milwaukee Area. He will be one of the presenters at “Your Right to Know - Oil Train Risks to Metro Milwaukee”, a March 12 forum hosted by the League of Women
Voters. For more information, see lwvmilwaukee.org