Rumbling freights shaking dresser tops and long waits at the grade crossing – Winonans are accustomed to the trains that charge up and down the river, but as high-profile accidents make international news and many reports describe a surge in traffic of explosive commodities, some are nervous about what is coming down the line. "The potential for a major accident is great," Winona Fire Chief Curt Bittle acknowledged last summer. "We have a product — I hate to say — to put us on the national stage in terms of a major disaster."
Local resident Alan Stankevitz noticed the uptick in train traffic on both sides of the Mississippi River in recent years. "As time went on, I saw more and more of these mile-long trains going with nothing but tankers," he said at meeting of citizens and local and federal officials on Monday. The boom in unconventional oil in the Canadian and American plains is spurring a surge in oil tanker railcar traffic, according to numerous national reports. The oil produced by fracking in the West, Bakken oil, may be more flammable than the crude oil train cars have previously carried, according to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Additionally, the vast majority of the tank cars that move oil in the U.S. are not in line with the latest industry safety standards, according to the industry group, the Association of American Railroads.
Combined, those three factors — more oil traffic, more flammable oil, and outdated tanker cars — constitute "a tremendous escalation in risk," former state representative and Houston County frac sand opponent Ken Tschumper said at a meeting with local and federal officials on Monday.
All of the train cars that operate on the Canadian Pacific (CP) Railway, which owns tracks on the Minnesota side of the river, meet federal standards, said CP spokesman Ed Greenberg. BNSF Railway Spokeswoman Amy McBeth said that oil shipments still make up a small portion of rail traffic for BNSF, which operates rail lines on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River.
Tschumper and Stankevitz argue that the derailment-explosion that killed dozens in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Canada, last summer; the Casselton, N.D., derailment-explosion last month; and the Aliceville, Ala., spill last fall are examples of how bad train disasters can be. They point to derailments, albeit comparatively minor ones, in Winona and La Crosse, Wis., in 2013 and one in Dresbach in 2008 as proof that it can happen here.
"An explosion is an explosion. You're going to lose people," Bittle told audience members when asked about such a disaster. He continued, "Winona is probably in the worst position a river town could be, with rail lines that bisect the city." However, he noted that federal regulations that require track maintenance and that limit speeds within the city make a violent derailment in Winona less likely.
McBeth stated that the BNSF has invested a record amount in infrastructure maintenance in 2013, has reduced the rates of accidents and injuries to record lows, and has provided training and equipment to emergency responders. Greenberg said that CP "has a rigorous safety system" and that all rail cars on its lines meet federal requirements.
Oil spills that do not catch fire may not threaten lives but still threaten local resources and are challenging to clean up. The Winona Fire Department practiced its oil spill clean-up techniques last summer with special equipment provided in part by CP and BNSF. Still, Bittle told Tschumper and others at the Monday meeting, the department's ability to respond to spills is limited in winter, during high river levels in spring, and in isolated areas. Bittle also noted that other hazardous materials routinely travel through Winona by rail and barge.
Whether the ability of the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and others to respond to spills is adequate "is a tough question to answer," said FWS La Crosse District Manager James Nissen. There are plans for dealing with accidents, but some areas and times of year pose extra risks, he said, noting that in the fall, 50 to 70 percent of the world's Canvasback duck population resides in the refuge. "It's a national treasure out there," he stated.
Calls for action
If citizens want to reduce the risk of derailments of oil tank cars, building pipelines and refineries are surefire solutions, said La Crescent resident Ronald Nelson. Refineries are so tightly regulated it is hard to build new ones, but new refineries close to the new oil-producing areas would dramatically reduce the need to ship crude oil. An "oil pipeline isn't going to jump out of the ground and cause a derailment," he noted.
"That is not the solution in my mind," said Rushford area resident Donna Buckbee. She noted that pipelines have been the cause of spills, as well. There is so much risk that "is not figured into the cost of oil," that ultimately, "we need to get off of fossil fuels."
"There're some real valid concerns," Winona County Commissioner Marcia Ward said of train safety worries. Still, "I do have to put gas in my car," she said, adding, "it's a commodity that has to move. How do you move it?"
Many of the area residents at Monday's meeting called for federal action to require all oil tank cars to be reinforced. The authority for regulating railroad lodges primarily with the federal government. U.S. Representative Tim Walz "is very concerned with the issue and he thinks there is a lot more we can do on railroad safety," said John Pierce, field representative for the Southeast Minnesota congressman. Walz serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and its subcommittee on railroads, pipelines, and hazardous materials. Pierce said Walz wants a congressional hearing on the issue.
The railroad industry itself, via the Association of American Railroads, has called for changes to federal tank car safety regulations. McBeth and Greenberg voiced their agreement. Bittle also concurred that strengthening rail cars was important. Additionally, he noted the importance of maintaining track and controlling train speeds. Winona City Council member Pam Eyden called for more transparency on the condition of local railroad tracks.
Pierce said that when Congress will address is the issue is unclear and that Walz would like to hear more from constituents at walz.house.gov.