ALMA, Wis. — There were no injuries and so far no signs of environmental damage after a freight train carrying ethanol went off the tracks Saturday, but state and federal officials are calling for better regulation and safety measures in the wake of two Wisconsin derailments in as many days.
“This is probably a great example of an incident where we feel like we got really lucky,” Sarah Feinberg, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, said Thursday while meeting with local first responders.
The response by the county’s volunteer firefighters — aided by state and federal officials and the La Crosse Fire Department’s hazmat team — was smooth and well coordinated, and cool temperatures may have helped prevent an explosion, said Alma Fire Chief Tom Brakke, who added, “It could have been a whole lot worse.”
Buffalo County’s director of emergency management was more blunt.
“We dodged a bullet,” said Stephen Schiffli. “It should be a wake-up call.”
About 25 cars on the BNSF train left the tracks, spilling up to 20,000 gallons of the alcohol/gasoline mixture into the Mississippi River backwaters. On Sunday, a Canadian Pacific train carrying crude oil left the tracks in Watertown, Wis., spilling hundreds of gallons of the fuel and prompting an evacuation in the southern Wisconsin city.
U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, used the back-to-back disasters to renew her calls for Congress to enact safety reforms, including a ban on shipping flammable liquids in outdated tank cars, known as DOT-111s, that were involved in Saturday’s crash.
“We want to learn everything we can from a derailment like this or the one that was experienced the next day in Watertown,” she said, “and update our policies and laws where we need to.”
A transportation bill passed by the Senate included Baldwin’s reforms, but the House passed a version that did not.
The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates there are more than 80,000 such unjacketed 111s hauling flammable liquids. Feinberg, the newly confirmed FRA administrator, said DOT-117 tankers made to new, stronger specifications will be less likely to puncture.
“These are cars that … are on their way out,” Feinberg said.
But DOT rules adopted this spring allow the old 111s to remain in service through 2023.
“I think that has to happen faster,” Baldwin said. “That’s my job ....”
Feinberg said shippers are not moving as fast as they could to update their fleets.
“One thing that we’ve seen is we’re not at capacity,” she said. “It is well within the control of some of the shippers to turn over to 117s faster.”
Feinberg touted other federal safety provisions, including Positive Train Control, which she called “a game changer” for rail safety.
Under a 2008 law, railroads were required to implement PTC by the end of 2015, but under pressure from the industry, Congress extended that deadline for three years.
All trains carrying flammable materials will also need advanced electronic braking — starting in 2023.
Baldwin said she would also like to create a system to provide real-time information about the materials moving through their communities.
BNSF has recently rolled out a website and mobile app available to state and local officials, said spokeswoman Amy McBeth.
At the state level, Wisconsin Rep. Jill Billings, D-La Crosse, introduced a bill that would fund state rail inspectors and training for first responders while requiring railroads to submit emergency prevention and response plans detailing how they would handle derailments and other accidents.
Sunday’s Watertown derailment was the year’s 10th involving oil or ethanol in North America, according to McClatchy news service. A Canadian Pacific train derailed on Feb. 4 along the Mississippi River near Dubuque, Iowa, spilling an estimated 55,000 gallons of ethanol. A month later, a BNSF train carrying Bakken crude derailed and burst into flames in a rural area south of Galena, Ill.
BNSF operates 20 to 30 trains per week carrying at least 1 million gallons of volatile crude oil from North Dakota along the tracks that run parallel to the Mississippi River from south of the Twin Cities to the Illinois border, according to information provided to state emergency officials and released in response to Tribune open records requests. Canadian Pacific moves about 7 to 11 trains per week on tracks that hug the Minnesota side of the Mississippi and head east across Wisconsin in La Crosse.
Schiffli said the increase in rail crude shipments make such disasters more likely.
“Now it’s the law of probabilities,” he said.
Alma Mayor Jim Wilkie said the city’s proximity to the rail line makes the 781 residents hypersensitive to hazardous cargo, especially since a runaway train in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, exploded in 2013, killing 47 people and leveling nearly half the town.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in this town that doesn’t dread what happened in Quebec,” Wilkie said.