Prairie du Chien updating municipal major disaster plan

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By Correne Martin

Ironically, just two days before a 103-car train carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire south of Galena, Ill., the Prairie du Chien Common Council discussed plans March 3 to review and update the municipal major emergency and disaster response plan. Certain city departments regularly update their emergency plans, as they are required to do so. However, the city’s overall plan is about six years old, and local officials believe specific attention should be paid to the portions of the plan dealing with train derailment, evacuation and cleanup procedures.

“The recent number of train derailments have led to the current round of updating and reviewing our current plan,” City Administrator Aaron Kramer said. “I think the recent derailments in Dubuque and Galena are more than a wake-up call. We have had discussions at the staff level over the past year about the ‘what ifs’ of a train derailment. We know that millions of gallons of crude oil pass through Prairie du Chien in any given week, and what happened in those communities could happen here.”

According to Kramer, estimates are that 30 million gallons of crude oil passed through Prairie du Chien during certain weeks in 2014, based on media reports from La Crosse. Kramer feels those numbers remain the same or more today.

The train that derailed near the convergence of the Galena and Mississippi Rivers March 5 is believed to have passed through Prairie du Chien during its route.

Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) said in a news release that the train’s tank cars were a newer model known as the 1232, retrofitted with protective shields, designed to meet a higher safety standard than federal law requires.

But, according to the Chicago Tribune, 1232 standard cars involved in three other accidents have split open in the past year, leading some to call for tougher requirements. Those other accidents included one last month in West Virginia in which a train carrying 3 million gallons of North Dakota crude oil derailed, shooting fireballs into the sky, leaking oil into a waterway and burning down a house. The homeowner was treated for smoke inhalation, but no one else was injured.

If a train derailed in Prairie du Chien, the city would face more of an evacuation and cleanup than anything else.

“Due to the potential size and impact, and limited ability of our fire department to handle the potential sheer size of a derailment, we are focusing more on an evacuation plan,” Kramer explained. “I know that is not what everyone will want to hear, but the emergency plan has to be practical and realistic. And that poses a whole series of tough questions: Where do people go? How do they get there if parts of the city are cut off? How do we communicate between various relocation sites? How do you handle the situation when different members of a family are in different locations of the city and have to relocate to different areas?”

As part of the Prairie du Chien Common Council’s action March 3, staff was directed to contact both BNSF and WSOR (Wisconsin and Southern Railroad) to collect their derailment, containment  and cleanup plans that would pertain to the city and surrounding area if a disaster were to happen locally. Letters sent to both companies March 6 specifically asked about each of their plans with regard to environmental remediation and property damage compensation as well. The companies were asked to respond at their earliest convenience.

The details from BNSF and WSOR will certainly play into the city’s updates to its emergency plan, which could come before the council for approval as early as April or May. Kramer and city staff are working on the plan as well as a continuity of government plan that would address the chain of command in case the mayor or a majority of the council were ever incapacitated as a result of a disaster.

“Local government still has to function if such an event were to happen,” Kramer stated. “We currently do not have a functional chain of command to keep operations moving in such a worst-case scenario.”

Ultimately, the goal is to get a plan in place as soon as possible in case any catastrophe were to happen in Prairie du Chien.

“There will be no perfect plan because no one can anticipate every aspect of a disaster, but we have been able to learn from the flash floods of 2013 and other recent events so we can continually fine-tune and improve our response plan,” Kramer explained. “We can also learn from the other train derailments to see how certain responses work or do not work. The main thing to remember is we have to have a plan to work from, but also be in a position to be able to respond to the unknown and the tragic.”

In addition to the train disaster aspect, the plan will also look closely at steps taken in the case of a major tornado, flood or other emergency situation. “We also have other emergency situations, such as an incident at a local school or at a local industry, which will require us to look at the plans of other parties involved, which we have been accumulating,” Kramer noted.

One further step of preparedness the city is taking at this time, in light of recent events, is to organize a tabletop exercise where a derailment and the local response would be simulated. Police Chief Chad Abram is putting together the details of this activity, which will involve other area agencies. That exercise will hopefully occur later this year.

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