Days after the fiery derailment of an oil train near Galena, Illinois, nine Wisconsin citizens went to court to challenge an expansion of a rail system for oil trains in their community.
The train had just passed through Wisconsin before the derailment.
Their focus was on the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ decision to permit the filling of wetlands and the construction of a bridge by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.
A Wisconsin Democracy Campaign report issued in mid-March stated that BNSF executives, mostly from outside Wisconsin, contributed $15,570 to Republican Gov. Scott Walker from 2010 to October 2014. During that period, Walker received more than $128,000 from the railroad industry.
The BNSF project would expand rail lines carrying crude oil through the Upper Mississippi River Basin.
Citizens, represented by Midwest Environmental Advocates, challenged the permitting for the rail expansion, arguing the DNR’s environmental analysis failed to comply with the Wisconsin Environmental Policy Act. Plaintiffs are seeking a reversal of the permit.
One of them, Ralph Knudson, was thinking about the Galena derailment the day his group went to court.
“Today’s rail traffic is much riskier than a few years ago,” he said. “The marsh project being considered is one of a series of projects intended to facilitate even more traffic flow. An environmental impact statement would compel a thorough look at all aspects of construction and operation of rail lines for opportunities to minimize risk and protect the marsh environment and public assets.”
Wisconsin law requires state agencies to consider environmental impacts when making decisions, including issuing permits.
But the DNR has changed its regulations and how it complies with the Wisconsin Environmental Policy Act. Among the changes was the elimination of the environmental assessment process that was used to document reviews and decisions regarding whether to prepare an environmental impact statement.
“Thorough disclosure and consideration of the full range of environmental impacts makes for better-informed DNR decisions and provides critical information to the public and other decision-makers about the impacts of a project,” said Midwest Environmental Advocates staff attorney Sarah Williams.
The citizens, in their complaint, said the DNR, with its permitting program, didn’t complete an adequate environmental analysis and failed to involve citizens in the La Crosse area with concerns about:
• Noise, vibrations and air pollution with increased train traffic.
• Environmental impact of filling another wetland in the La Crosse River Marsh, already reduced by half its size from previous development.
• The environmental impact of the construction and operation of a second track on the Mississippi River adjacent to and downstream from the marsh.
• Environmental harm and public safety in the event of a derailment.
• The proximity of a bald eagle nest — 600 feet — from railroad tracks.
Following the explosive derailment of at least three trains in as many weeks over the winter, citizens in other regions of the country are raising similar concerns about the rapid rise in the number of oil trains in the United States.
Witnesses from miles away saw the fireball that erupted after the BNSF Railway freight train derailed near Galena in early March. The fire burned for more than a day. Twenty-one of the train’s freight cars left the tracks and five ruptured, catching fire.
The train derailed in a heavily wooded, hilly area near a Mississippi River tributary. Firefighters used a bike path to reach the site, but pulled back because of the intensity of the flames.
The derailed cars were newer and supposedly safer models, and this fact led to heightened calls for local, state and federal authorities to do more to protect people and the environment.
“As we’ve seen in West Virginia and Ontario, these oil trains pose a massive danger to people, wildlife and our environment, whether its trains passing through heavily populated areas or some of our pristine landscapes,” said Jared Margolis of the Center for Biological Diversity, a national environmental advocacy group. Margolis is the author of the recently released report Runaway Risks.
In his analysis, he reported that an estimated 25 million people in the United States live within the 1-mile evacuation zone for oil train derailments. He also reported:
• Oil trains routinely pass within a quarter-mile of 3,600 miles of streams and more than 73,000 square miles of lakes, wetlands and reservoirs.
• Oil trains pass through 34 national wildlife refuges and pass within a quarter-mile of critical habitat for 57 threatened or endangered species.
• Oil train traffic has increased from about 10,000 cars in 2008 to 400,000 cars in 2014.
• Oil trains are expected to haul 40 times more oil in 2015 than in 2005.
• More than 1.1 million barrels of crude oil spilled from oil trains in 2013.
In the Midwest, oil trains transport about 72 percent of the 1 million barrels of crude produced in the North Dakota Bakken fields.
Margolis’ report said BNSF moves as many as 27 oil trains a week through Cook County, Illinois. And up to 15 oil trains a day pass through the Twin Cities, Minnesota.
“Almost all of these oil trains pass through Minnesota into Wisconsin, traveling along the Mississippi River before turning east, often to East Coast oil refineries,” Margolis wrote. “Data show that 30 to 48 dedicated oil trains per week carry Bakken crude into Wisconsin from Minnesota. Three to five of these cross southern Wisconsin on the Canadian Pacific railroad, passing through downtown Milwaukee and turning south along the heavily populated Lake Michigan coast. The rest travel on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad along the east bank of the Mississippi River, through the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge.”
The report contains a series of recommendations, including:
• Banning outdated tank cars.
• Amending regulations to require oil-spill response plans for areas where oil trains operate.
• Limiting the length of trains to 30 cars and 4,000 tons.
• Establishing speed limits — less than 20 mph — for oil trains traveling through population centers or within a quarter mile of environmentally sensitive areas.
Still, Margolis said, “the reality is there’s no way to safely transport the highly volatile crude from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota or the heavy crudes from the Alberta tar sands. Instead, these extreme fossil fuels should be left in the ground.”