The Peril Above Genoa

Genoa is a village on the Mississippi River in Vernon County, Wisconsin.

The following essay on the environmental risks posed by the oil trains travelling along the shoreline of the Upper Mississippi states of Wisconsin and Minnesota was published in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on Tuesday, April 23, 2013 ( ). It was one of three essays commemorating Earth Day 2013.

Here is a view of one of Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s oil trains ( ).


The Peril Above Genoa.

Saturday marked the third anniversary of the explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon and the start of 87 days during which an estimated 4.5 million barrels of crude oil polluted the Gulf of Mexico and the ecosystems, wildlife and shorelines of four Gulf states.

Though the threat from BP’s errant well has passed, a similar threat to Wisconsin’s fragile Upper Mississippi ecosystems has taken its place. The danger increases each spring and fall when the Upper Mississippi hosts migrating Canada geese, snow geese, pelicans, ducks and other water birds that depend on the river for safe passage.

The threat comes from the oil boom in the Bakken Formation, a shale oil deposit beneath portions of Montana, North Dakota and Saskatchewan. After leaving the Bakken, 100-car, mile-long Burlington Northern Santa Fe oil trains follow 276 miles of Wisconsin’s Mississippi River shoreline from Prescott to the Iowa border.

The threat is magnified by Canadian Pacific trains carrying tar sand crude oil from Western Canada that follow the western shore of the river for 119 miles before crossing into Wisconsin at La Crosse.

Above Genoa, a mile north of the lock and dam that forms a broad lake reaching to La Crosse, the river channel crosses from the Minnesota side to touch Wisconsin. There, massive tows of barges nose into the shoreline while waiting for the locks to clear and the southbound BNSF oil trains come within yards of the river while their empty, northbound twins speed back to the Bakken.

There is no better place to observe the interaction of commerce and the environment. The tows wait, trains meet at 60 mph, waterfowl and pleasure craft dot the river, the drumlin hills of Minnesota define the western horizon while limestone bluffs rise above the village of Genoa to accent the region’s natural beauty.

There is also no better place to worry about what might happen if an oil train derailed into the Mississippi.

Each car carries 26,000 gallons of crude oil, meaning one, 100-car train carries 2.6 million gallons, or 61,905 barrels. Bakken terminals are aiming at loading 10 100-car trains per day, or more than 619,000 barrels. That’s only the beginning.

La Crosse saw its first BNSF oil train in January 2010. Three years later, Progressive Railroading quoted BNSF Chairman and CEO Matt Rose saying, “We see a path to 100 million barrels per day.” That’s a mind-boggling, eco-threatening, 161 times 2013 levels. A significant part of that oil will move along Wisconsin’s Mississippi shoreline. With it, the threat to fragile Upper Mississippi ecosystems will continue to increase.

BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster spewed an estimated 56,910 barrels of crude into the vast Gulf of Mexico every day. Today, a BNSF oil train carries nearly 5,000 barrels more than that. Its proposed 118-car trains could potentially exceed BP’s daily Gulf damage levels by more than 16,000 barrels. At 60 mph, a mile-long, 100-car BNSF oil train passes the point above Genoa in a minute.

Thus, the environmental damage to the Gulf that took BP an entire day could be exceeded above Genoa by a BNSF oil train in one minute. The likelihood of all 100 cars splitting open during a derailment is slim.

Still, the danger was foreshadowed on March 27, when a mile-long CP train derailed near Parkers Prairie, Minn. One of its cars, carrying tar-sands crude from Canada, ruptured, spilling 26,000 gallons. Two more cars leaked an additional 4,000 gallons. The derailment, said to be the first of the BNSF/CP oil train boom, was followed on April 3, when a CP derailment near White River, Ontario, resulted in another spill.

No perfectly safe way exists to transport oil. Last summer’s gasoline pipeline spill into Washington County’s Jackson Marsh Wildlife Area comes to mind here. The risk increases with the demand for oil. When we pump crude oil from the earth to meet that demand, it must be taken somewhere to be refined. But the ongoing risk to the life of Wisconsin’s Upper Mississippi ecosystems is simply not worth taking.

Karl Garson lives in Crawford County (


This entry was posted in Clean Water, Environment, Karl Garson, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Nature, Published, Wetlands, Wisconsin and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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