Danger of increased oil shipments by rail worries Wisconsin firs - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Danger of increased oil shipments by rail worries Wisconsin first responders

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PORTAGE (WKOW) -- The amount of crude oil being shipped by train through the United States is fifty times higher today than it was just six years ago. As a result, rail cars spilled 1.2 gallons of oil in 2013, which is more than the 800,000 gallons spilled during the previous four decades combined.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has said "enough is enough."  Earlier this month, US DOT put out an emergency order requiring railroads to tell state emergency officials how much oil they're shipping, where it is going and when it will be there.

"And what it will mean is railroads that are transporting about a million gallons of Bakken oil or light crude oil, which is about 35 cars, will need to report to the state," said Lori Getter, crisis communications manager for Wisconsin Emergency Management.

To this point, Wisconsin officials could only guess at how much oil rail traffic has increased in recent years.

"I can't put a number on it, but it has increased exponentially," said Jeff Plale, Wisconsin Railroad Commissioner.  "

Portage sits on a Canadian Pacific rail line that transports a lot of that crude.

"We know its there.  We never know how much or when it's coming through, but its all the time," said Capt. Mike Hudgens, who leads the hazmat response team for the Portage Fire Department.

Hudgens says he worries most about crude oil cars derailing in residential neighborhoods, many of which are just a few feet from the tracks.

"You don't want to get that big one as we call it," said Capt. Hudgens.

Resources and equipment are a huge challenge for local emergency responders.  The Portage Fire Department handles hazmat calls for all of Columbia County, but they don't even have enough of the foam used to put out an oil fire resulting from a single tanker car spill. 

"It would probably handle a tanker fire on the highway, something along those lines, but nothing like a rail car," said Capt. Hudgens.

In the event of a rail car oil spill and fire, Portage Fire would have to wait for help from the Madison Fire Department.

"So we would call them and they're 35 to 45 minutes out, possibly an hour before they could come and assist us with some of the stuff we need," said Portage Fire Chief Clayton Simonson, Jr.

The firefighters will be happy to have more information from the railroads.  But because of recent derailments, they're getting more prepared on their own as well.

"Myself and two of our lieutenants are going to go out to Colorado and spend three days out there specifically to attend a school that's designed for these crude oil spills with the railroads," said Capt. Hudgens.

Along with that Canadian Pacific line, there are two other companies that carry crude oil through Wisconsin.  Burlington Northern Sante Fe transports oil on their line that runs along the Mississippi River in southwest Wisconsin, while Canadian Northern operates a line that carries oil through the Fox Valley and the Milwaukee area.

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