Day 3: Oil Trains, Old Rusty, and the S.S. Badger

Oil Trains: Can Cities Mitigate Risk and Ease Fears of Grassroots Groups?

During the recent natural gas boom, companies have raced to get their product to market. With no pipelines serving key areas and with big projects like Keystone shuttered, oil companies turned to the rails. But high-profile derailments, like the one in Lac Mégantic, Quebec that killed 47 people, as well as rising concerns over aging U.S. transit infrastructure, have raised concerns about trains loaded down with potentially explosive crude passing through major population centers. It has also led to higher costs and stricter regulations for companies. While it appears oil train traffic is being replaced by new pipeline capacity, there is still risk on the rails. The group met with the Great Lakes Commission about their recent report on oil transport in the region, met with city officials tasked with planning for potential emergencies and heard from local residents who are pushing for bridge inspections and revamped emergency management plans.

Converging at the Confluence: Milwaukee by Boat

Fellows headed to the Milwaukee Kayak Company, donned life jackets, grabbed paddles and got out on the Milwaukee River for a paddler’s-eye view of the city. We headed to “Old Rusty,” an elevated train bridge that crosses over the confluence of the Milwaukee and Menomonee Rivers and heard from representatives of Citizens Acting for Rail Safety about concerns over aging inner-city rail infrastructure that involves 36 river crossings and dozens of miles of tracks where passing trains come within feet of densely populated neighborhoods.

Crossing an Inland Sea

The Great Lakes hold one-fifth of all the available (i.e. not frozen) freshwater in the world. The group crossed mighty Lake Michigan aboard the ferry S.S. Badger, which is part of the region’s energy history in its own right: the last coal-fired steamship on the Great Lakes. In fact, up until the end of 2014 the ship dumped the coal ash produced from its boilers right into Lake Michigan. EPA estimates said the ship was dumping up to 4 tons of a slurry of water and coal ash daily. Today, a series of pipes collects the ash and sends it to metal holding bins where, when it reaches land, it can be removed and “beneficially reused” in road projects.

Constant Versus Context: Covering the Environment in the Digital Age

In the digital world today, journalists have traded their role of gatekeepers for one of sifters and winnowers – finding facts in a deluge of information. We explored the brave new world of digital media and identified some useful tools that can help journalists investigate issues, tell stories better and get the results out to a wider audience.