A mission to Neimuth’s three weeks ago provided answers to a column idea mulling in my head.
While stopped for the signal near the Waupaca Country Club entrance, three engines entered the rail crossing giving an opportunity to verify my estimates on the number of cars comprising many Canadian National trains traveling through the area.
It is a habit to pay attention to the number and assembly of tank cars, since the Weyauwega 37-car derailment of a Wisconsin Central train March 4, 1996. The event dominated my time at the Post-Crescent for nearly a month after 5:49:32 a.m. – railroad time – that day.
Waupaca Sheriff’s Deputy Terry Wilz was at the scene, State 110 and County X, and alerted the dispatch center by his squad radio. A general alarm brought trucks and firefighters from 10 departments to the scene.
Nobody involved in that event can see a train and not think about it.
Recent rail derailments involving explosions and fires kindle memories of the seven cars of liquified petroleum gas and propane, and two cars of sodium hydroxide that derailed, leaked and began burning immediately, sending fire balls 300 to 500 feet in the air.
The city was a ghost town as 2,300 people in the area were evacuated for 16 days. There were no serious injuries.
Recent events are not as fortunate, experiencing both deaths and injuries.
Waiting at the crossing was the first chance to count the number of cars and tank cars since that time. The engines were followed by 102 cars, a single engine, and another 100 cars, ending with a flat car of lumber.
Of particular note: The first string of cars included 79 tankers and the last string 30. Most tank cars were grouped together.
News of a recent derailment killing 47 people came to mind.
“There is quite a difference then and now,” said Eric Helgeson, a Hazmat member at the Weyauwega derailment. He currently works with Waupaca County Emergency Management director Andy Carlin.
“In 1996 Weyauwega was unique. It was a model for training through the nation,” he said.
“Nobody can be prepared for a million-gallon disaster. The equipment would be too costly,” he replied to a question.
Containing an explosive crude oil derailment can last days, consume thousands of gallons of foam, according to Wisconsin Emergency Management.
Supply of foam – that creates bubbles much like dish soap – is a major concern because the producers do not stockpile quantities. Foam costs about $100 for five gallons. Foam producers work to refill inventories.
Helgeson said response in 1996 was remarkable, it was contained within the derailment area and there were no serious injuries.
“Nothing went wrong. Large scale evacuation and that type explosion you don’t know what might happen,” Helgeson said.
He said many improvements have been made.
“Probably the most important is the ‘Code Red’ system that enables the county command center to alert people by telephone. It took about three hours to notify everybody to evacuate Weyauwega. Code Red will do it in 5 to 10 minutes.
U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order last Wednesday requiring railroads to notify states of large shipments of Bakken crude oil. The order will apply to shipments containing more than 1 million gallons of crude, or about 35 tank cars, and will have to disclose volumes, frequencies and routes of anticipated train traffic.
Transportation of crude oil has increased from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to more than 400,000 in 2013. Canadian Pacific Railway, different than CN, tracks are south and west of the CN and located in the Bakken area.
Bakken oil in North Dakota produces about 950,000 barrels a day and about 73 percent, or 700,000 barrels are transported by train, according to the Energy Policy Research Foundation.
Wisconsin Emergency Management is holding 12 training sessions on how to handle crude-by-rail accidents between now and June.
The USDOT order comes in the wake of eight major accidents in the U.S. and Canada involving crude oil between March 2013 and April 2014 – including an explosion in Quebec last July that killed 47 people.