A Major Global Issue and One Major Wisconsin River in the Middle of It

Nov 25, 2014 | Mining, Water Policy

The Keystone XL pipeline is back in the news, with Congress itching for a fight with the president over its approval. Though that pipeline, which will carry tar-sands oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, is nowhere near a Wisconsin river, oil from Canada, and from the Bakken oil and gas patch of North Dakota, is already travelling down the railroad tracks on both sides of the Mississippi River, including of course Wisconsin.

Observers say train traffic has quadrupled on those tracks in recent years, much of it long, ominous looking single-unit trains of black tanker cars. Sit on the front porch of the vintage tavern the Monarch, in Fountain City, and three trains will rumble by before you finish your first pint.

One argument for the Keystone pipeline is that it would take pressure off busy and potentially dangerous rail lines (which one group calls “bomb trains”). This seems unlikely: the new pipeline would justify more production in the tar sands region of Canada, yet the trains would keep on rolling.

Those trains’ danger to the Mississippi is considerable. Emergency responders along the Mississippi are already practicing for the seemingly inevitable.

Staying with the Mississippi – all those oil trains taking up space on the tracks are making it harder to ship grains with global destinations on those same rails to ports in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. That means grain-toting barge traffic is on the rise on the Mississippi.

The River Alliance is part of the Nicollet Island Coalition which challenges assumptions about the necessity of the ecologically damaging navigation system on the river.

From its beginning in the 1920s this system has been a special-interest bonanza (mainly grain companies). It has little social benefit but gives grain giants like Cargill a taxpayer-subsidized way to move grain (and other commodities) on the river. Shipping has been in decline on the river for years, but the federal Corps of Engineers keeps pushing to expand the navigation system, perpetuating the damage on this incredibly ecologically valuable river system.

Stay with me here on the connections: more oil in Canada and North Dakota means more oil trains on lines along the Mississippi. Those trains are busy hauling oil and thereby less available to haul grains. That means the grains end up on barges moving down the same river. While an oil train wreck along the river would be environmentally catastrophic, barges represent nothing like that. Barges seem benign, but the navigation system of lock and dams, levees, wing dams and dredging to make their travel possible is the proverbial environmental death by a thousand cuts.

Fighting to mitigate that damage will get harder as the oil trains tie up the tracks in that corridor and the slack in grain shipment is picked up by the barges.