Oil And Water Don’t Mix


On Sunday, September 13, Milwaukee Riverkeeper co-hosted “Convergence at the Confluence” with our friends at Citizens Acting for Rail Safety (CARS)Citizens Acting for Rail Safety (CARS). We met at the confluence of the Menomonee and Milwaukee Rivers, under a 100-year old railroad swing bridge to highlight the dangers of shipping crude oil by rail over and along our waterways.

The swing bridge is just one of dozens that cross our local waterways. Railroads often run parallel to our rivers for dozens of miles, making our railroads “virtual pipelines” that endanger the health of our rivers and Lake Michigan. The Milwaukee River flows cleaner today than it has in many decades, and it is unthinkable that as we are finally recovering from decades of legacy pollution that our rivers are now under threat from a crude oil spill that could erase our efforts to bring them back to health.

Nationally, oil train traffic has increased more than 4,000% in the last five years. In our Milwaukee River Basin, Canadian Pacific operates a major rail route, where an estimated 11-14 trains per week carry combustible crude oil through our major urban areas and across our rivers, exposing our communities and our waterways to the considerable risk of oil spills. Crude oil from North Dakota (“Bakken crude”) is shipped with gas and other chemicals to keep it in liquid form, consequently making it highly combustible. Our national rail network is in poor condition, with single “hulled” rail tank cars making up the majority of U.S. oil tanker trains. These tankers have serious structural flaws that make them prone to puncture and explosion during a derailment.

In response to public concern, several Federal Agencies including the Department of Transportation and Federal Railroad Administration, are requiring some limited reporting for trains carrying more than 1,000,000 gallons of Bakken crude (around 33 rail cars). These weak regulations also allow disaster-prone rail cars to stay on the rails for decades. In addition, while railroads are required to inspect bridges and railroads carrying this type of cargo, they are not required to share this information with Federal regulators or even with communities they pass through.

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Our mission is to protect, improve and advocate for water quality, riparian wildlife habitat, and sound land management in the Milwaukee, Menomonee, and Kinnickinnic River Watersheds. We envision a future in which people from all walks of life can enjoy the healthy waterways of the Milwaukee River Basin. Milwaukee Riverkeeper is a licensed member of the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international coalition ensuring clean water and strong communities. We are working to achieve swimmable, fishable rivers for future generations throughout the Milwaukee Rive Basin.