As rapidly increasing amounts of crude oil is transported throughout the country, Wisconsin emergency responders are preparing for a what-if scenario.
Highly combustible crude oil from the Bakken Formation in North Dakota is changing the rail landscape. Estimates from the Congressional Research Service predict 650,000 carloads of crude oil will be transported across the country this year, an increase from 434,000 carloads in 2013 and 9,500 in 2008 when the oil boom began.
"It's something we always talk about because it could happen again here," said Steve Fenske, who's part of the Waupaca County Hazmat Team.
In March 1996, a train carrying liquid petroleum gas and propane derailed, forcing the entire city of Weyauwega to evacuate for more than two weeks.
Now, nearly a decade later, the concern nationwide is over crude oil. A year ago, 47 people were killed in Quebec when a train carrying Bakken crude derailed. In North Dakota in December 2013, 400,000 gallons of crude spilled when a trail derailed and exploded near Casselton.
An Action 2 News analysis of federal data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration showed no crude oil spills in Wisconsin before 2012. Since then, 8 separate spills have been reported statewide, a majority of them minor causing more than $25,000 in damage.
Fond du Lac
North Fond du Lac
1 liquid gallon
WI Central LTD
10 liquid gallons
20 liquid gallons
5 liquid gallons
1 liquid gallon
2 liquid gallons
7,500 liquid gallons
2 liquid gallons
"It's just the law of averages," Jeff Plale said, the Wisconsin railroads commissioner. "Anytime you have more trains on the system, the possibilities of something going wrong increases."
In response the U.S. Department of Transportation recently fast-tracked an emergency order nationwide, requiring all railroads transporting large amounts of Bakken crude, more than a million gallons, to notify state officials. The railroads didn't want this information public, but state emergency managers thought otherwise.
"We really felt it was important for the public to know this information," Tod Prichard said, a spokesperson with Wisconsin Emergency Management.
Through open records laws, Action 2 News obtained that data. It shows in 18 Wisconsin counties, large amounts of Bakken crude moves through the state every day via two major railroads, BNSF and Canadian Pacific.
Canadian Pacific Railroad
Avg. trains per week
Avg. trains per week
Train companies cited homeland security concerns in wanting to keep this information private.
"We felt it was general enough information that it was not a security risk, and it was very important the public know what is going on," Prichard said. "Some information is better than no information, and really before we were getting no information."
According to that data the railroads provided to state emergency leaders, large amounts of Bakken crude aren't yet moving through Northeast Wisconsin. But emergency responders say it could.
"We need to be prepared to deliver these critical services to our residents," Mike Sipin said, assistant fire chief for Neenah-Menasha.
Sipin said the crude oil transported through the Fox Valley is coming from Canada, similar to the Bakken region. Recently he led emergency responders in a simulated exercise centered around a train derailment and explosion.
"Just reading some of the accounts of what happened in Quebec last year," he said. "It certainly sounded like they were completely unprepared for something like this."
Railroads like Canadian National are training first responders as well. A training tanker truck recently spent several weeks in Wausau and Green Bay training hundreds of local responders on a wide-array of potential incidents.
The railroad is also sending more than a dozen Wisconsin responders to Colorado this fall for specific training on crude oil response.
"It's good to get that training and work alongside them," Fenske said, who was one of the responders chosen to go.
Despite the concern, federal data shows railroads consistently spill less crude than other means of transportation.
Yet the isolated incidents, with catastrophic damage, have Wisconsin responders constantly thinking what-if.
Wednesday, July 30 2014 2:46 PM EDT2014-07-30 18:46:44 GMT
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