Rail Work

A train passes the rail crossing on Forest Hills Golf Course where BNSF is building a second set of tracks.

Erik Daily, La Crosse Tribune

Two Coulee Region congressmen have again introduced legislation designed to help communities prepare for an oil train derailment or spill.

Rep. Ron Kind, joined by Minnesota’s Rep. Tim Walz and other Democrats, re-introduced a bill Tuesday that would bring together emergency workers and technical experts from government agencies and private enterprise to form a national committee to advise Congress on the nation’s needs for responding to an oil train disaster.

Kind cited the growing amount of crude oil being shipped across Minnesota and Wisconsin from the oil fields of North Dakota.

“As more and more oil is being shipped across Wisconsin, the risk of derailments and spills in our local communities continues to grow,” Kind said in a news release. “We rely on our local first responders to do so much to protect our communities, and this bill would give them needed tools and resources so they can react quickly and effectively in case of a rail emergency.”

Rail shipments of the highly-flammable Bakken crude have skyrocketed in recent years, from about 9,500 carloads in 2008 to nearly 814,000 last year.

Documents filed with state emergency management officials show the amount of oil moving along the Mississippi River corridor has grown even since May, when railroads were first required to report weekly traffic of trains carrying more than 1 million gallons.

Canadian Pacific now moves 7 to 11 trains a week – about twice the number it reported in May – on the Minnesota side, while BNSF hauls 29 to 39 on the east. Assuming each train carries about 3 million gallons, that works out to an average of more than 420,000 barrels of oil per day.

The federal Department of Transportation estimates over the coming two decades there will be an average of 10 derailments a year of trains hauling crude or ethanol, causing more than $4 billion in damages and possibly hundreds of deaths.

“Ensuring our first responders have the tools, training, and equipment necessary to respond effectively should disaster strike is of the utmost importance,” Walz said. “(A)nd it was the number one thing I heard from local community leaders that was lacking during my many rail safety meetings across Minnesota.”

The committee authorized by the bill would develop recommendations for ways to improve training, resources and information available to first responders.

BNSF recently stationed a foam trailer with the La Crosse Fire Department and has promised to deliver a boom for containing a floating oil spill.

Both BNSF and CP have also offered to send firefighters to Colorado for specialized training.

But most of the fire departments along the Mississippi River are staffed by volunteers, and many fire chiefs say they haven’t found anyone willing to use personal vacation time.

House representatives from Maine, New York, Illinois and Louisiana have signed on to Kind’s bill, and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota has introduced a companion bill in the Senate, which has attracted the support of Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.

The bill has yet to attract any Republican co-sponsor, a key step in advancing the bill in the GOP-controlled Congress.

Kind introduced the bill in the last session, but it did not advance beyond the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials.

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