On June 19, 2009, a Canadian National freight train hauling 75 tank cars filled with more than 2 million gallons of denatured ethanol, pulled out of Tara, Iowa, and headed east. Its destination was the Hawthorne Rail Yard in Cicero and it would have rumbled through North Riverside and Riverside on its way there.
But the train never got that far. Just east of Rockford, in Cherry Valley, the train hit a section of washed out track — severe thunderstorms had hit the area that day — and 19 tank cars derailed.
Of the cars that derailed, 13 were breached and the ethanol caught fire, killing one person waiting in a vehicle at a grade crossing and injuring seven others. Two firefighters were also injured and about 600 homes within a half-mile radius of the derailment had to be evacuated.
The National Transportation Safety Board blamed poor communication by railway personnel and also cited the tank cars themselves as being vulnerable to rupturing.
Now suburban Chicago officials are calling on rail companies to improve safety measures in order to prevent a similar derailment in the much more densely populated areas of Cook County and the collar counties.
Last month, a Berwyn alderman called for the city council to pass a resolution asking the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to force rail companies to adopt stricter standards for tank cars carrying highly flammable materials such as ethanol and the crude oil that increasingly is making its way through the Chicago area from North Dakota, where oil production is booming.
No such resolutions are on the desks of officials in Riverside, North Riverside or Brookfield, but that could change in the future.
“It’s on my radar,” said Riverside’s interim village manager, Jessica Frances.
Frances said she is preparing to reach out to other suburban community leaders and eventually to the West Central Municipal Conference, which represents about 40 communities in west suburban Cook County.
“It’s going to impact us all,” Frances said.
Often, local officials don’t know exactly what is traveling through their towns, because railroad companies don’t volunteer that kind of information, though they will share it with government officials who ask for it.
Andy Williams, the BNSF director of public affairs for Illinois, said the railroad doesn’t like to make that information public.
“We try not to publicize it for security reasons,” Williams said.
Williams also said that highly flammable hazardous materials make up just a small portion of the railroad’s load. While those materials are transported in black tank cars that are routinely seen traversing the villages, those tank cars transport everything from maple syrup to ethanol.
Fewer than 20 trains running along BNSF tracks per day carry crude oil, said Williams. The railroad’s network includes more than 32,000 miles of track throughout the United States and Canada.
“Folks see the black tank cars and assume it’s always hazardous, but it is not,” Williams said.
Brookfield Fire Chief Patrick Lenzi said requesting that information may become the norm as fears about crude oil transportation increase.
“It’s starting to head in that direction,” said Lenzi, who added that the subject of crude oil transportation has been a topic of discussion among fire executives at Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS) Division 10, a coalition of 17 suburban fire departments that provide emergency responders, including HAZMAT personnel, to member towns when those services are needed.
Additionally, Brookfield has access to HAZMAT responders from the city of Chicago and Lemont in the case of an extreme hazardous materials emergency.
“Brookfield is not going to respond with 100 gallons of foam and put out a fire,” Lenzi said. “It would take a coordinated response.”
Brookfield experienced a minor derailment — one involving tank cars — in May 2013. The seven rear-most cars of a 110-car train were involved in the incident. No one was injured and the tank cars were not carrying placards indicating they were hauling a hazardous material.
But the incident showed that there’s potential for derailment anywhere along a rail line.
“I worry about the stuff that travels up and down here all the time,” said Riverside Fire Chief Spencer Kimura, who said he worries about liquefied gases that are transported in tank cars through the village. If those cars are breached in a derailment it could produce clouds of toxic gas.
“It’s not just crude oil,” he said.
The railways have made improvements to the tank cars that carry highly flammable materials, but there are still plenty of hazardous materials transported in tank cars prone to rupturing in derailments.
On Sept. 29, The Regional Answer to Canadian National (TRAC), a coalition of suburban leaders in Cook and collar counties, submitted written comments to federal transportation authorities. TRAC complained that a recent proposal by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration failed to safeguard against the type of derailment that occurred in Cherry Valley, because it still allowed highly flammable materials to be transported in tank cars susceptible to rupturing.
The PHMSA has proposed allowing those tank cars to carry highly flammable substances as long as there are no more than 19 carloads transported on a single train. TRAC noted in its comments that of the 46 crude oil/ethanol derailments since 2006, 20 involved just a single car being breached and endangering the public.
TRAC concluded that the proposal resulted in 40 percent of highly flammable materials “not being covered by any new safety enhancements.”
And that means those volatile materials continue to travel in vulnerable tank cars through North Riverside and Riverside on the Canadian National rail line and through Brookfield and Riverside on the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe rail line.
Local firefighters, typically through their MABAS divisions, participate in training exercises to prepare them for dealing with hazardous incidents. Two weeks ago, North Riverside firefighters who are HAZMAT specialists were part of a training exercise involving tank cars at a Stickney industrial plant. Canadian National Railroad officials also were on hand to consult with firefighters on ways to respond to such an incident.
Those firefighters, according to Fire Chief Brain Basek, will also attend future training sessions specifically about crude oil incidents.
“Our firefighters plan on attending and will focus on that material and what’s the best way to deal with it if there’s a fire or spill,” Basek said.
In November, Brookfield firefighters will attend a classroom training session with BNSF officials and follow it up with additional safety training at the Congress Park rail yard.
But firefighter training won’t do anything to reduce the threat of serious incidents if highly flammable materials are allowed to be transported through heavily populated areas in tank cars that may rupture in a derailment.
Chicago environmental activist Debra Michaud of Tar Sands Free Midwest held a demonstration earlier this year in the city’s Pilsen neighborhood, demanding answers on what the group refers to as “bomb trains.”
Michaud said the group wants the railroads to release the routes for trains coming from North Dakota oil fields. That oil, she said, is more volatile than other oil. The group also wants information on blast zones and what the city of Chicago is doing to prepare for potential explosions. She said residents of suburban communities should be equally concerned.
“You can’t even imagine the casualties,” said Michaud. “It would be like a bomb being dropped in the city.”
Tim Inklebarger also contributed to this report.