Repost from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Asked for info on bridge conditions, railroad carrying Bakken crude tells cities no
By Lee Bergquist, Sept. 13, 2015
A flotilla of kayaks and boats and a small crowd onshore hold banners and beat drums Sunday to raise concerns about the transport by rail of oil through Milwaukee and across an aging railroad bridge at the confluence of the Menomonee and Milwaukee rivers near S. 1st Place. | Michael Sears
Despite urging from a federal agency that railroads hand over more information on safety conditions of bridges, a carrier moving Bakken crude oil through Milwaukee says it doesn’t plan to provide such details.
Trains carrying Bakken crude go through downtown Milwaukee, leaving some residents afraid of what will happen if there is a spill. This train passes by the apartment of Brian Chiu on W. Oregon St. | Brian Chiu
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) distributed a letter from Sarah Feinberg, acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, in which the regulator urged railroad carriers to provide more information to municipalities on the safety status of bridges. Milwaukee officials have complained about the lack of information on the structural integrity of railroad bridges used by Canadian Pacific in the city.
“When a local leader or elected official asks a railroad about the safety status of a railroad bridge, they deserve a timely and transparent response,” Feinberg wrote.
“I urge you to engage more directly with local leaders and provide more timely information to assure the community that the bridges in their communities are safe and structurally sound.”
“CP’s position has not changed,” said Andy Cummings, a manager of media relations for the company.
“It is our policy to work directly with the Federal Railroad Administration, which is our regulator, on any concerns they have with our infrastructure.”
The exchange comes in the wake of growing concerns from communities along rail corridors used by railroads shipping a growing tide of oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota.
Those worries have been exacerbated by tanker accidents. The most notable is the July 2013 derailment of tankers that killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. The tankers had been routed through Milwaukee before the accident.
There have been no accidents involving crude in Wisconsin, but on March 5 a BNSF Railway train derailed and caught fire near Galena, Ill., after leaving Wisconsin. Twenty-one tankers derailed. Galena is about 10 miles south of the border.
In Milwaukee, one bridge in question is a 300-foot-long structure, known as a steel stringer bridge, at W. Oregon St. and S. 1st St. The bridge was constructed in 1919, according to Bridgehunter.com, which keeps a database of historic bridges.
Canadian Pacific said on Sept. 1 that it would encase 13 of the bridge’s steel columns with concrete to prevent further corrosion and to extend the life of the columns. The carrier said last week that a protective layer of concrete will be applied late this month.
Since last spring, neighbors have expressed worries about the integrity of the bridge, and since July city officials have sought details on the condition of the bridge.
In addition to the threat to human safety, environmental groups such as Milwaukee Riverkeeper say about three dozen bridges cross rivers and streams in the Milwaukee River basin.
On Sunday, a flotilla of kayaks and canoes paddled at the confluence of the Milwaukee and Menomonee rivers to underscore the connection between trains and the city’s waterways.
Bridges must be inspected annually by railroads. But railroads are not required to submit the information to the federal agency. Railroads also are not required to make the information available to the public.
Cummings said the bridge on S. 1st St. has been inspected by a railroad bridge inspector. “We are confident in its ability to safely handle freight and passenger train traffic,” Cummings said.
In her letter, Feinberg said the agency is “re-evaluating” its programs to determine whether it needs to take additional steps.
Common Council President Michael Murphy said he isn’t satisfied by Feinberg’s comments.
“I would liked to have seen a little more teeth in it,” he said.
Murphy said Canadian Pacific should be more transparent, adding that he expects the company to brief the council’s public safety panel soon on the bridge’s condition.
Baldwin and Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, also a Democrat, said in an editorial in the La Crosse Tribune last week that oil trains have put “hundreds of communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin at risk for the explosive crashes that come when an oil train derails.”
Nationally, trains carrying crude oil in the United States have jumped from 10,840 carloads in 2009 to 233,698 in 2012 to 493,127 in 2014, according to the Association of American Railroads.
Canadian Pacific is shipping seven to 11 Bakken crude trains a week through Wisconsin, including Milwaukee, according to the latest data sent to the Wisconsin Division of Emergency Management. BNSF is shipping 20 to 30 trainloads along the Mississippi River.
In a federal transportation bill that has passed the Senate but not yet the House, Baldwin and Franken said they added language that would make oil train information available for first responders. It would also give state and local officials access to inspection records of bridges.
Sunday’s paddle protest in Milwaukee was meant to highlight concerns by Milwaukee Riverkeeper and Citizens Acting for Rail Safety that the area’s aging bridges were not built to accommodate so much oil.
Cheryl Nenn of Riverkeeper said a rail accident that spilled crude could have long-lasting effects on the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers, and Lake Michigan, the city’s source of drinking water.
Complicating a potential oil spill in downtown Milwaukee is wave action from Lake Michigan, known as a seiche effect, where surging water from the lake can push water upstream, she said.
“The Milwaukee River is cleaner today than it has been in decades, and now we face a threat from crude oil,” Nenn said.