With trains that carry crude oil and other hazardous materials traveling on railroad tracks running through main areas of Wauwatosa, community members are concerned with taking action to help prevent a disaster from occurring.
At a public forum sponsored by Grassroots Tosa on March 2, about three dozen residents gathered in the Firefly room of the Wauwatosa Public Library to hear a presentation from representatives of the Milwaukee Area chapter of Citizens Acting for Rail Safety.
Formed in May 2015, the Milwaukee-based CARS group represents one of several chapters of the regional organization, which works in the upper Midwest with citizens and public officials to achieve a rail transportation system that respects health, safety and quality of life of people, wildlife and the environment.
Eric Hansen, a representative for Milwaukee area CARS, highlighted the dramatic increase during the last several years in the amount of crude oil being transported by train in the United States. In 2008, about 9,500 tank loads of crude oil were transported nationwide, Hansen said, and by 2014 that amount had increased to about 493,000 tank loads.
Wauwatosa Fire Chief Rob Ugaste, who also serves as vice president of the Wisconsin State Fire Chiefs' Association, said in a separate interview that each car of an oil train can hold up to 30,000 gallons of crude oil, and each train is allowed to carry up to 35 car loads, or 1 million gallons.
In addition to the dramatic increase in the volume of oil being moved by train, the type of oil — Bakken crude oil, which comes from the N orth Dakota, Montana and Canada region — is also more dangerous, because it is lighter and more volatile than traditional heavy crude oils, and ignites at much lower temperatures.
In fact, according to the CARS presentation, during the last two years there have been 11 oil train derailments or explosions in the region, including the 2014 train derailment and fire in Galena, Illinois, and a 2013 incident in Lac Megantic, Quebec that killed 47 people.
Aside from the oil itself, the use of DOT-111 tank cars to carry it is also a factor, Hansen said. DOT-111 cars have thin skins that can often rupture upon derailment, no head shields at the ends of tank cars to prevent puncturing from collisions with adjacent rail cars, not enough protection for fittings and valves, and no pressure relief devices to prevent boiling-liquid expanding vapor explosions, according to the CARS website.
Although DOT-111 cars are being phased out and replaced with DOT-117 tank cars, which Ugaste said is a step in the right direction, explosions have already occurred with the updated tank cars as well, pointing to the need for a better solution.
The position of the Wisconsin State Fire Chiefs' Association is that steps can be taken in six key areas to work toward that solution — including reducing the hazard by stabilizing the oil before shipping, improving the safety of the containers carrying oil, maintaining rail infrastructure, reducing the maximum speed for trains to 40 miles per hour statewide, increasing safety protocols to prevent trains from moving unintentionally and minimize damage in derailments, and cooperation from the railroad companies in working with local communities.
Although Hansen noted the lack of transparency the public has met from railroad companies when it comes to addressing safety concerns — such as failure to provide a railroad safety inspection report that revealed structural issues last April for a bridge in the Walker's Point area, near 1st Street and Pittsburgh Avenue — Ugaste said he believes the railroad companies are now doing a better job of sharing information.
In addition to meeting with the Canadian Pacific and Union Pacific railroads to discuss resources and training, Ugaste said that local fire departments have taken numerous steps to prepare for the possibility of an oil train derailment in Milwaukee County.
For example, local fire departments have partnered with Milwaukee County Emergency Management on a grant to obtain 600 gallons of foam – which is in addition to the foam kept on hand by each department and a special foam fire trailer stored by Milwaukee County, along with providing specialized HazMat training to emergency responders and working to establish a county guidance document, Ugaste said.
"We've got to work together to protect people who live and work near tracks," he said.
One Tosa location that is especially vulnerable is the village area on State Street, where railroad tracks pass right next to restaurants and businesses, Ugaste said.
Although Ugaste described the Quebec incident as an "extreme example" of an oil train derailment, caused by a tragic, unpredictable sequence of events, he also acknowledged that if a hazardous product, crude oil or otherwise, were to escape from a train in that area, it could result in an evacuation that would be very far-reaching.
Another area of concern, resident Eugene Barufkin said during the forum, is the north-south rail line near Highway 45 off of North Avenue, which runs adjacent to a Denny's restaurant, two schools, several hotels and a new apartment complex currently being developed.
Several residents who spoke out during the forum expressed similar concerns, stressing the need to raise awareness of the issue.
"Our mission is to get people aware of the dangers, and then to get them involved," said Catherine Ross, who owns A Center for Yoga on Harwood Avenue and resides less than half a mile from the railroad tracks.
In particular, Ross, who indicated she has personally spoken to other area business owners and city officials about the matter, emphasized the need to protect the safety of families with young children who frequent parks and business areas near railroad tracks.
"This is a family community – young families move here just to be in this community," resident Diane Thompson later echoed. "I had no idea about this issue until tonight, and I think many of my neighbors… have no clue and are not even aware of this. So the more you can get the word out, the better."
For more information on the Milwaukee Area chapter of Citizens Acting for Rail Safety (CARS), including upcoming events, visit saferails.org, go to "CARS Chapters" and select "CARS – Milwaukee Area," or visit facebook.com/SafeRails.MkeArea.