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Railways transfer heavy loads of crude oil through Wisconsin about 45 times per week

By Mike Simonson

Wisconsin Public Radio

Canadian Pacific and BNSF Railways are transferring substantial train loads of volatile Bakken crude oil through 18 Wisconsin counties at an average of 45 times per week, according to information that Wisconsin Public Radio News obtained through an open records request.

The train companies have been reporting the information to Wisconsin Emergency Management (WEM) ever since the federal government ordered all railroads transporting at least 1 million gallons of Bakken crude per train trip to notify state emergency officials.

BNSF is the busier of the two companies. It averages 36 to 39 trips per week through eight counties, from Pierce and La Crosse counties along the western border to Grant County.

Canadian Pacific averages four trainloads a week, going from La Crosse to Milwaukee and Kenosha counties, and eventually heading for Chicago.

WEM director Todd Pritchard said the routes includes residential areas.

“Especially for urban areas — high-density population areas — the trains are required to slow down to 40 miles per hour,” said Pritchard. “That’s a new rule that went into effect rather recently.”

Trains carrying Bakken and Alberta tar sands crude have been involved in 11 train derailments and explosions in the past year, including an incident which killed 47 people in a Quebec town.

“It’s got a high volatility because of the gases that are there,” said Pritchard. “It’s very similar to what we would face in terms of a tanker carrying gasoline or something like that.”

Pritchard said some of the tankers traveling through Wisconsin also carry Alberta tar sands crude oil.

WEM released the information a month after WPR News filed an open records request, even though both railroads objected to its release. Pritchard said it's important for local responders to know if the oil is going through their community.

“We also felt it was very important for the public to get this information, to know what’s coming through their communities and to really at least have a sense of what’s being transported on these lines,” said Pritchard.

Pritchard says by August 1, they’ll have 25 hazardous materials teams across the state ready to respond to derailments, as well as other hazardous materials incidents.

More WPR news is available on KUWS-FM 91.3 and online at