By Dylan Deprey
The bellowing whistle of a train blowing in the distance can generate different thoughts for different people. To some, it is the heart sinking feeling that they are going to be stuck in traffic a lot longer than they first assumed. To those wielding signs on the corner of 34th St. and W. Capitol Drive it only meant one thing: A traveling bomb.
On July 6, 2013 a crude oil train de-railed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. The highly volatile Bakken crude oil ignited. The explosion destroyed the city’s downtown and killed 47 people. The train passed through Milwaukee days earlier.
On the three-year anniversary of the tragedy, George Martin, president of the NACCP of Milwaukee, stood on W. Capitol Drive. He held a letter from the Federal Railroad Association and Wisconsin & Southern Railroad to Congresswoman Gwen Moore. Oil tankers sat immobile on the bridge behind him.
On July 5, in a Fox 6 report, Wisconsin & Southern Railroad spokesman Kent Lact said that the railroad did not transport crude oil.
The letter dated from May 11, 2016 stated that the Federal Railroad Association and Wisconsin & Southern Railroad did an investigation on the tankers. They found that of the 348 oil tanker cars parked along the corridors of W. Capitol Drive, 114 of the tankers had residual crude oil.
Residual crude oil is defined as excess crude oil particles in or on railroad tankers.
“Now if they went so far to mislead us yesterday in their statement saying that they don’t even transport crude oil in these tankers, how can we say how much residual crude oil is actually in them,” Martin said.
Eric Hansen from the Milwaukee area local chapter of Citizens Acting for Rail Safety (CARS). This group is a part of the nationwide network Crude Awakening, which was created in response to the train explosion in Quebec.
Hansen said that the members of the community had the right to know why crude oil tank cars were being stored next door to them.
“The railroad should be candid about the very real risks here,” Hansen said.
Brian Chiu is also a member of CARS. He lives south of downtown in the Walker’s Point neighborhood.
Crude oil trains pass by his house daily. While sitting in his apartment he can tell the difference between an oil train and freight train by the sloshing of the oil. Some of these are unit trains reaching around 100 cars long. He said that the movement of the oil could put pressure on the tracks moving or not.
“The bridge where I live was built in 1916,” Chiu said. “When they built these bridges they were not expecting fully loaded tank cars to be on them.”
Chiu also noted that there could be a potential health issue because crude oil has a flash point or vaporizing point of 70 to 75 degrees.
“We need to find out what are the long term effects of breathing this stuff in on a daily basis,” Chiu said.
“How much is escaping into the atmosphere and community around here?”
Martin offered that the trains be placed in the many of the rural areas in Wisconsin and away from dense populations like the city of Milwaukee.
“I think they can find a better place to park this bomb,” Martin said.