LA CRESCENT, Minn. -- When construction equipment appeared next to the Canadian Pacific railroad tracks at Miller’s Crossing in January, sand mining opponents pounced.
Two citizen groups, Citizens Acting for Rail Safety and the Houston County Protectors issued a news release claiming the railroad was constructing a siding that would lay the groundwork for an industrial loading facility and pave the way for large-scale silica sand mining once the county’s three-year moratorium expires in March.
“That’s big news in our county -- the potential for frac sand mining in our county,” said Ken Tschumper, a member of the HCP group. “This rail siding offers the opportunity to have a loading facility in the same area.”
As it turned out, the cranes were there to replace parts of the bridge over Miller’s Pond, but the railroad does have plans to upgrade its network from La Crescent south as it looks to expand its fastest growing business segment: North Dakota crude oil.
CP has four major projects in the works this year, including a realignment of its La Crescent switch yard, the Miller’s Crossing bridge replacement and new sidings on its Marquette line, which follows the Mississippi River south through Iowa and west to Kansas City.
The two-mile sidings -- one near completion in Harper’s Ferry, Iowa, and another proposed for the tracks north of Brownsville, Minn., would allow trains to pass on what is currently a single-track line.
Most of CP’s traffic -- including almost all the oil -- now crosses the Mississippi at La Crescent and follows the main line east through Wisconsin.
CP has been coy about the reasons for the projects but rail safety advocates suspect it signals plans to move more oil on the Marquette line, which now averages fewer than one oil unit train per week, according to reports filed with Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa officials.
“We add capacity based on the routes where we believe we have demand,” said spokesman Andy Cummings, who notes the railroad moves all types of commodities, including grain, coal and cars.
The company’s 2014 investors book notes that crude – both from Alberta, Canada, and North Dakota – is the company’s fastest-growing line of business – expected to nearly double in 2015. The report indicates CP is working with other carriers who could pick up crude shipments in Kansas City for delivery to Gulf Coast refineries.
“I would say it’s highly likely the crude by rail is a major driver of that just because crude by rail is the big new growth sector for the rail network in that region,” said Lorne Stockman, research director for Oil Change International, a clean energy advocacy group that tracks crude by rail shipment. “And because Kansas City is a transfer point to other lines that would take it south to the Gulf Coast.”
Documents filed with state officials show CP already doubled the amount of oil moving on its Mississippi River route in 2014. As of December, the railroad reported 7 to 11 trains per week were moving through Houston County into La Crosse County.
CP also lists the Marquette line as one of the primary routes for the growing volume of frac sand heading from Wisconsin to Texas, but it is crude oil that most concerns first responders in Houston County, where fire departments are not equipped to handle a major spill or explosion.
“It’s a huge concern of everybody along the river,” said La Crescent Fire Chief John Meyer. “Along our side of the river we’re all volunteer fire departments. We don’t have the hazmat teams and the foam capacity to do anything.”
Kurt Kuhlers, the county’s emergency manager, agrees, saying in most cases first responders would have to secure the perimeter until hazmat crews arrive.
“If it’s on fire, it’s probably going to be a matter of standing back,” he said.
But even large fire departments with hazmat equipment may not be able to contain a large spill.
During an October field drill, high winds hampered first responders from multiple agencies as they struggled to deploy floating booms designed to contain a mock spill in the river backwaters near La Crosse.
Part of the problem was the boom, which was designed for still water, said Capt. Jeff Schott, head of the La Crosse Fire Department’s hazmat squad.
“It can function on the river, but it doesn’t do to well in current,” Schott said.
BNSF railroad has equipped La Crosse Fire with a foam trailer for suppressing chemical fires, but Schott said the department is still awaiting a trailer with specialized river boom.
Two recent derailments have only heightened attention to the issue. On Feb. 5, a Canadian Pacific train carrying ethanol derailed north of Dubuque, spilling an estimated 54,000 gallons. And on Monday, a CSX train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed and exploded in West Virginia.
“It’s coming,” Kuhlers said of the oil. “They’ve got to move the product somehow … Keep your fingers crossed it never happens here.”