Monitoring hazardous materials moving through Northeast Wisconsin requires teamwork

We wanted to know who's keeping track of hazardous cargo on our local rails after a number of train derailments around the country.
Published: Mar. 30, 2023 at 5:26 PM CDT
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - Two recent toxic train derailments are shining a light on hazardous waste practices in Northeast Wisconsin.

As we first alerted you, hundreds of people had to evacuate in Minnesota after a train hauling ethanol and corn syrup derailed and caught fire early Thursday. Weeks earlier, a train in Ohio derailed.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources said more than 11,000 businesses, schools and government institutions in our state create hazardous waste. A handful of agencies play a role in keeping track of hazards along our roads and railways.

The process starts with the DNR as it issues Environmental Protection Agency ID numbers and hazardous waste transportation licenses.

“We regulate the pre-transportation requirements that things have to be packaged in a certain manor but once it’s on the road or on the rail that’s not regulated by the DNR from a hazardous waste program,” Hazardous Waste Program Coordinator Mike Ellenbecker said.

According to Ellenbecker, it’s fairly straightforward to get an EPA ID.

“There is a notification form that is filled out. The state processes it. It can basically all be done online.”

From there, hazardous waste moving along rail corridors is regulated by the Federal Railroad Administration and the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

The FRA issued a statement to Action 2 News, saying in part:

Should a leak or spill occur, local sheriff’s offices and fire departments take action.

“We’re not typically involved in the day to day logistics of what’s being moved from point A to point B. We’re there to get involved if something bad happens,” Capt. John Rousseau with the Brown County Sheriff’s Office said.

Deputies are prepared to respond but aren’t responsible for constantly monitoring what’s on our railroads.

“Number 1170. That’s ethanol. It’s a flammable liquid. Our deputies can scroll down and see how big of an area we need to evacuate,” Capt. Rousseau explained while looking through an app on his phone.

It’s called the Emergency Response Guidebook.

Some train cars and trailers have a number visible in the center of a diamond on the side of them. If you look up the number in the guidebook, it shows you what’s inside and necessary safety precautions if there were a spill or leak.

“That number relates to something that we can very quickly look up. See what the chemical or compound is, see what our response is and then we can sort of plan from there,” Capt. Rousseau explained.

For example, number 1830 is sulfuric acid. The app advises, ‘Isolate spill or leak in all directions for at least 50 meters (150 feet) for liquids and at least 25 meters (75 feet) for solids.’

“We train to take a look at that. Take that half a second. Look at it. See what’s involved, what dangers it imposes and then we can adjust our response from that,” Capt. Rousseau said. “A lot of times that will involve conversations with hazmat teams or a specialty unit or a fire department or whoever else we need to bring in for it.”

Hazardous materials are tracked by several agencies