Sen. Baldwin promotes newly proposed legislation for railway safety

Proposed legislation suggests new standards for crude volatility

Dozens of trains make their way through La Crosse every week carrying hazardous material, and with the building of a second rail line through the city, Sen. Tammy Baldwin wants to make sure communities along the tracks are protected.

When it comes to rail safety, most of the people I talked to Tuesday said they are disappointed in the lack of regulations by the federal government.  

As more and more crude oil is transported from state to state, concerned citizens believe there should be more involvement from the federal level and that is why so many are supporting Sen. Baldwin’s new piece of legislation.

La Crosse has always been a railroad town.

“We have the BNSF line that runs basically north and south through our entire community, we have the CP rail, which comes from Minnesota and cuts through our community as well, so we have a lot of rail traffic here,” said Mayor Tim Kabat.

And with construction of a second rail line underway, Kabat is concerned about the increased movement of crude oil.

“About 18 months ago, we started a dialogue with our federal legislators to say what are the safety plans, where are our resources for our first responders?” said Kabat.

But when looking for answers, Kabat didn’t find very many.

“I was disappointed in the federal rule-making that did not basically get the DOT 111 cars off the rails sooner and no stabilization of crude oil before shipment,” said Kabat.

Because Kabat, along with concerned citizens, has been looking for more input from the federal government, Baldwin has decided to introduce a new piece of legislation called the Crude-By-Rail Safety Act.

“We think much better communication should be occurring,” said Baldwin.

The goal is to implement greater safety measures to protect communities, starting with new standards for crude volatility and replacing unsafe tank cars.

“A lot of the crude oil is being transported by unsafe and outdated cars that should be removed from the rail fleet entirely and replaced with updated and safe tank cars that have a thermal lining that tends to reduce the risk of explosion even in the event of a derailment,” said Baldwin.

A spokesperson for BNSF Railway said it’s something the company has long advocated and has already started doing.

“We have been working with our customers and we will be working with them to phase out those older cars more quickly, and again that is an important piece, we believe, of mitigation in the event there is an incident,” said Amy McBeth.

BNSF also helps train local first responders and provide equipment.

“We have placed trailers there to help in response and have some additional training agreements with the fire department there,” said McBeth.

The La Crosse Fire Department has a two-year agreement with BNSF under which the railway company pays for specific crude oil training. But the new piece of legislation would make sure there is funding for long-term training, which is something La Crosse’s fire chief would like to see.

“What I am looking for is rather than being a flash in the pan, that we have some federal leadership in terms of sustainment, education, advancement in response technologies and notification technologies. That is what we are sorely lacking,” said Chief Gregg Cleveland.

Cleveland also says the issue of increased hazardous material on the railroad tracks isn’t just a La Crosse issue, it’s a national one. He said it only makes sense for the federal government to get more involved and work with the industry to provide resources for local communities instead of allowing each community to fend for itself.