Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Wisconsin's increasingly risky environmental crapshoot

Wisconsin's policy-makers have chosen to take the smallest affirmative steps to prevent pollution and more catastrophic damage to the land, air, water and public safety - - as has happened elsewhere.

*  While a Canadian pipeline company responsible for numerous spills is tripling the capacity of a tar sand oil line that runs the length of Wisconsin, the Department of Natural Resources looked at the expansion plan and decided that environmental reviews for pipeline construction between 2006 and 2009 were sufficient, with only a new air permit being required for a bigger pumping station where the expanded pipeline begins in Superior.

When Dane County sought to require the company to obtain insurance against a spill because the pipeline crosses its water-and-farmland-rich municipal boundaries, the just-approved state budget crafted by Scott Walker and his GOP legislative allies magically included a last-minute amendment banning local pipeline spill insurance requirements.

* An intrusive, big government approach that fits nicely with other top-down and ideologically-based state policies that are producing fewer environmental inspections and enforcement actions by Wisconsin officials - - doing less with less, when more makes sense for the people, as it were.

*  Separately, I talked Tuesday afternoon with Jeff Plale, Scott Walker's Wisconsin railroad commissioner, to find out if his agency still had but one rail inspector, as reported earlier this year.

You read that right. 
One. Permanent. Inspector.

And yes, Plale said, his agency - - the smallest in state government - - in fact has only one permanent, full-time rail inspector, though Plale said he's had a full-time limited term equivalent (LTE) inspector on board for part of the year.

So in an era of vastly increased rail shipments of volatile crude oil, and highly-publicized  flaming derailments, this is the official approach:

Wisconsin's smallest agency - - with one permanent, full-time state rail inspector - - is responsible at the state level for about 3,000 miles of track and 4,500 at-grade crossings.

There were 52 train/highway at-grade crashes in Wisconsin last year, resulting in ten fatalities and 17 injuries, plus four train/pedestrian fatalities and two additional injuries, data show.

This minimal commitment of state inspection dollars means that each rail crossing in Wisconsin gets an inspection by Plale's agency about once every five years, he said, while rail transportation of frac sand, oil, shipping containers and other cargo in and out of Wisconsin is rising "exponentially."

Supplemented, too, by those boosted tar sand oil pipeline shipments from Superior to the Illinois state line, too.

At the same time that the state also fights cleaner air standards, has thrown water protections out with the bathwater, and cut DNR science positions while transferring some water and other environmental programs to an enlarged division that also serves business.

Run by a former Wisconsin trade association staffer who has been most recently the DNR's air. waste, remediation and redevelopment chief, closing that corporatist circle, so to speak, at a DNR that resembles the former Wisconsin Department of Commerce.

Replaced by a different state business agency, but that's another sad story for another day about the diminution of the public interest in Wisconsin.
Why not transfer state pipeline inspections to Plale, his lone inspector and the LTE, too, and really crank up the ongoing environmental crapshoot here?

Seriously - - to his credit, Plale said his agency has stopped "chasing accidents" and is focusing staff attention pro-actively on incident-prone corridors. 

And he added that he'd requested a second full-time inspector in the 2015-'17 budget.

It won't surprise you in these days of "Open for Business" Small Wisconsin Government  that the position request didn't make it through the legislative process.
An oil train snakes through downtown Milwaukee on 'Old Rusty,' a 99-year-old railroad company bridge that is about to get some better structural support. Two oil trains that had passed through Wisconsin in the last two years derailed in Quebec, Canada and Galena, IL, and some tanker cars caught fire.


Anonymous said...

It is disappointing to see you post that same picture over-and-over again with misleading narratives that say this is unsafe.

IN FACT: This rail line is one of the best kept in the nation and is certified for 80 mph passenger service -- it is an AMTRAK corridor!

You cannot cite any examples of the best kept, most modern, continuous-welded rail -- all regularly surfaced by specialty rail equipment so that the each wheel rides properly and accurately on both rails -- have had dangerous accidents with oil cars. These facts, however, mean nothing to you.

We can find oil trains running on old rail that is not certified to the highest standards in America -- BUT THAT IS NOT THIS LINE!

Just not kewl to come here and see inflammatory (ha ha! no pun intended, it is your rhetoric that is inflammatory and not the rail traffic) posts over-and-over again that only prove you are not qualified to assess the dangers on this rail line.

Yes, the bridge is over 100 years old, but it still stands and still meets some rigorous standards. Why are you misleading your readers into thinking that one of AMTRAK's densest corridors with among the highest passenger loads in America (Hiawatha service) is somehow substandard and ready to collapse any day?

This is just wrong -- please do some fact-checking -- it helps tell stories accurately.

Anonymous said...

Railroads -- did I not read there is only one (1) (UNO) railroad inspector in the entire state of WI? Sorry, an emphatic attitude does not make me feel any safer.

Yes, WI regulates itself. It meets its "manure management" self-regulation standards, too, to the detriment of the people, land and water of Wisconsin.

Anonymous said...

Government for the government, and by the government. Sad to see us, Wisconsin, become the new model for money in America.

Anonymous said...

There has been a freight car derailment on this line just a few yards east on the Florida Street bridge. I do not recall the exact year, but it was after 2002. Also the Florida Street bridge has been hit numerous times by trucks attempting to pass underneath this rail line. From 2002 to 2013, I worked at a business adjacent to both the 1st Street and Florida Street bridges and witnessed these events. Sh_t happens; even on the best maintained rail lines.