U.S. Representative Ron Kind was in Prairie du Chien to speak with constituents on Monday, May 12.
Railroad safety and regulation were at the top of the list of concerns for Kind and many of those in attendance. The congressman is a vocal proponent for addressing safety issues surrounding the transport of North Dakota’s Bakken crude oil via rail. Ongoing incidents involving explosions and spills of crude oil being transported in railroad tank cars are putting a spotlight on the situation.
The U.S. Department of Transportation recently issued an emergency order and safety advisory requiring railroads to notify state emergency commissions of the number of trains carrying more than one million gallons of the oil (equal to about 35 tank cars) on the rails each week and which counties each train will pass through.
Kind wants the individual communities notified as well.
The ability for communities to respond to the situation of oil being transported by rail is limited, according to Crawford County Supervisor and Prairie du Chien Common Councilman Ron Leys.
“We are very concerned here, and of course every time we raise the questions, the railroads wave the federal constitution at us,” Leys said. “We know we can’t fight those [oil] fires. The only thing we can do is evacuate.”
Leys said he feels the federal government needs to mandate the use of safer double-hull railroad tanker cars.
Kind noted that some railroads are making that investment and that studies were currently being conducted about the safety of increasing weight on the existing rail lines. The safer cars, while needed, are significantly heavier and could potentially create additional safety issues, Kind noted. Measures such as requiring the railroads to reduce transport speed and potentially increase the number of staff working on the trains needed to be examined.
The issues with the railroads go further than the transport of oil, noted Marilyn Leys. She asked for help in getting the railroads to be more responsive to the communities through which they pass.
“There have been some problems with the railroads going through town,” Marilyn said of the situation in Prairie du Chien. “Local officials have tried talking to the railroad people about changes. The railroad people always say, well we are interstate commerce, only the federal government can tell us what to do.”
Train cars sitting for long periods at crossings and in front of the historic river park were sited as recurring problems.
The City of Prairie du Chien passed a resolution asking the railroad to not block the historic park but the railroads response, according to Ron Ley, was “you can’t make us.”
Another constituent noted that railroad personnel had threatened to turn him in for trespassing for trying to cross the tracks on foot to get down to the river.
Other communities have also reported difficulties in working with the railroads, Kind said. He offered to get the U.S. Senators from Wisconsin involved in a meeting with the railroad commission to see if they could influence the responsiveness of railroads to community needs. Kind noted that the rail commission was protected by law, but that if they failed to be more responsive it could lead to lawmakers changing the laws that allow them to operate without local cooperation.
The railroad situation also plays into another growing concern in Wisconsin, frac sand mining, adding to increasing rail transport as well as issues of water use, water quality, air quality, and local land use.
Kind expressed some inherent distrust in what he sees as boom-and-bust cycles.
“The first line of defense is the local zoning boards and the decisions they are making,” Kind said. “That is why I want to keep the decisions being made at the local level.”
“There has been an effort in the state to bypass local decision making and place it in Madison, which I think wouldn’t have the same type of concern as the local level,” Kind continued. “We saw that with CAFO siting, which took that decision out of the hands of local officials and placed it in Madison.”
Concerns over the Veterans Administration were also raised in light of the massive failure of VA Hospitals in California and Arizona, which are performing poorly.
“The fact that you have the state of Wisconsin (VA facilities) taking 7,000 cases from other states indicates that we have been doing a relatively good job,” Kind noted. “But now, it is creating a backlog here as a consequence.”
Congress will have to have a hearing on this right away, according to Kind, to determine if the issue was staffing or something else.
Additional concerns raised at the listening session were:
• lack of oil well inspections on Bureau of Land Management, which Kind identified as a result of funding cuts;
• increasing water management and water rights issues, which Kind said he felt would be one of the largest issues we deal with this century and that conservation was necessary;
• voter suppression, which Kind noted was being presented as an effort to address voter fraud, which was a nonexistent issue;
• contention and lack of cooperation amongst legislators, which Kind identified as a major roadblock in being able develop long-range plans for addressing energy needs, climate change and campaign finance reform;
• a request for continued support of H.R. 679, which would allow long-term U.S. Army Reserve personnel, who have deployed through non-federal activation to be recognized as veterans;
• a request for mediation in an insurance settlement disputed relating to historic structures;
• the reduced number of local open sessions with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife; and
• reducing the instance of overseas outsourcing of jobs.