Molly Priesmeyer is the co-owner of Good Work Group, a creative and storytelling consultancy dedicated to helping mission-driven businesses and organizations succeed. Her stories on everything from arts to culture to the environment have appeared in the Star Tribune; Pioneer Press; City Pages; Rolling Stone; Mpls. St. Paul Magazine; MinnPost; and more. She has been working on her best-selling novel "Why Me? A Martyr's Guide to Life" since fourth grade.

Danger ahead: Following the oil trains along the Mississippi River

Posted by: Molly Priesmeyer Updated: July 26, 2014 - 10:10 PM

The first thing you notice in Stockholm, Wisconsin, is its seemingly artist-rendered small-town charm. Ice cream shops on street corners. Artist galleries with open doors. Stranger smiles and genuine "hellos." The second thing you notice are the trains. A long-tailed locomotive, some 100 cars long, that snakes along the Mississippi River. The horn wails so many times a day residents have lost count. 11pm. 6am. There's no specific schedule…it just comes. And comes. And comes. "We really have no idea when it comes or what it's carrying. No one will really tell us, " a gallery owner tells me.

His story echoes recent findings in today's Star Tribune article, which reveals that full disclosure from the train companies is hard to come by. 

According to the Strib, 50 oil trains a week travel through Minnesota and into Wisconsin, carving a path of worry throughout river towns like Stockholm. 

Down the Great River Road, about an hour south of Stockholm and 2.5 hours south of Minneapolis, Trempealeau, Wisconsin, rests along the mighty Mississippi. The quiet town, home to about 1,500 people and numerous acres of wildlife refuges, is interrupted by the deep, lonely train horn all day long, but residents say you get used to it. 

"The train comes through about 40 to 50 times a day," the receptionist at Trempealeau's Inn on the River tells me. Still, residents are uncertain about how much crude oil passes through the town.

Railroad Crossings Data reveals that 43 BNSF trains move through Tremealeau per day, at a maximum speed of 60 mph.

According to recent AP reports, BNSF claims that, on average, 39 of those trains per week are oil trains from the the Bakken Shale region in North Dakota. And according to the AP findings, each train can carry about 3 million gallons of crude oil. (Canadian Pacific owns the railway on the Minnesota side, and they claim that much fewer oil trains pass along there.)

The railroads refused to turn over information about the oil trains until recently, when federal officials ordered them to after a string of accidents, including one last July in Quebec where 47 people were killed when an oil train derailed and exploded. (On Thursday, a BNSF train carrying crude oil derailed in north Seattle, but no spills or injuries were reported. The oil train originated in North Dakota.) BNSF train

Still, city officials all over the country are suggesting that BNSF is not being forthcoming about exactly how much oil is traveling though their towns. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Emergency Order issued in May, BNSF is only required to update its information if there is a 25 percent increase or decrease in train travel. 

Along with much of the information not being made public, residents all over the country—and particulary in Minnesota and Wisconsin—have another reason to worry. According to the New York Times, the oil that comes out of the Bakken Shale region in North Dakota is particularly flammable and prone to explosion. Further, the current oil cars carrrying it are outdated and present a serious safety risk.

From the NYT: 

“We are proposing to phase out the DOT-111 tank car in its current form,” Anthony Foxx, the transportation secretary, said on a conference call with reporters, adding that current oil trains “obviously present a safety risk.”

A new tank car design was introduced in 2011 with some enhanced features, but those cars have also been involved in spills — most recently in April, when an oil train derailed in Lynchburg, Va., and spilled 30,000 gallons of oil into the James River.

Meanwhile, in the last hour, two more BNSF trains just sped through Trempealeau.  

Do you live along one of these routes? Share your thoughts and experience in the comments. 

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