Illinois oil train derailment involved safer tank cars

A BNSF Railway freight train loaded with crude oil burns near the Illinois Wisconsin border last week.

The Associated Press

Following a fiery train derailment last week in Galena, Illinois, near the Wisconsin border, the Department of Natural Resources is facing a legal challenge over a wetland filling and bridge permit to facilitate more crude oil shipments through the state.

The suit says the DNR did not conduct a full environmental impact statement when it granted the permit to Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) for a second set of tracks through the La Crosse River Marsh.

More than 40 oil trains now rumble through the state each week from North Dakota, many with more than 100 tank cars. Some pass through Sauk, Columbia and Jefferson counties.

Petitioners are asking the La Crosse County Circuit Court to reverse a permit granted last month and force the DNR to do a more thorough analysis under the Wisconsin Environmental Policy Act (WEPA), a 1972 law that required sound decision-making by state agencies.

“As we have seen with recent derailments like the one that happened in Galena, last Thursday, today’s rail traffic is much riskier than a few years ago,” said Ralph Knudson of Citizens Acting for Rail Safety in a statement. “The marsh project being considered is one of a series of projects intended to facilitate even more traffic flow.”

Changes to NR Chapter 150 in 2014 now allow the state to meet requirements of WEPA without doing an environmental assessment. This change in state law allowed the bridge and wetland permit to go forward with a minimum amount of public review, according to the Madison offices of Midwest Environmental Advocates, which is assisting the citizen’s group.

“Compliance with WEPA isn’t just a paper exercise or a box to check,” said MEA attorney Sarah Williams.

The lawsuit notes a series of risks with the expansion of rail traffic through the La Crosse marsh.

They include:

• the threat of a more train derailments with increased shipments of hazardous materials

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• impact on nesting bald eagles

• noise and air pollution for neighbors living near the tracks

• filling of the La Crosse River Marsh, which has already been reduced to half its original size by previous developments.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis) and Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis) on Monday issued a joint statement calling for the Obama Administration to take immediate action to address oil train safety. The U.S. Department of Transportation was to have finalized new rules to address oil tank car safety but has missed a Jan. 15 deadline.

The statement noted that just a few years ago it was rare to see an oil train in Wisconsin but today more than 40 oil trains a week pass through the state, many with 100 or more tank cars.

“The danger facing Wisconsin communities located near rail lanes has materialized quickly,” the statement said. “It is clear that the increase in oil moving on the rails has corresponded with an uptick in oil train derailments.”

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