Less than two weeks before a fiery train derailment outside of Galena last week, Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel wrote a letter to Gov. Bruce Rauner, pleading for the state to launch initiatives to help small-town first responders deal with such hazardous incidents.

In January, Weitzel and Village Manager Jessica Frances attended a seminar in Lombard that focused on the proliferation of trains carrying potentially explosive crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota through the Chicago area.

“I went to the seminar and I thought, ‘Wow, police are really under-prepared,'” said Weitzel. “We have no equipment, no training. We’re really behind the eight ball.”
On March 5, a train hauling 103 cars of Bakken crude oil, heading east on the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad line near Galena, derailed.

Several of the cars ruptured and exploded into balls of flame that burned until Sunday. According to Weitzel, who spoke to officials at the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, the train was slated to travel on the BNSF line through Brookfield and Riverside on its way to the Cicero rail yard.

On Friday, Weitzel publicly released his letter to the governor, which was sent Feb. 25.

“I realize the railroad falls under federal guidelines but believe that the state of Illinois should be able to enact some common-sense initiatives to assist local law enforcement and first responders,” Weitzel wrote in his letter to the governor. “After all, these tank cars are traveling through our small communities in Illinois.”

Weitzel asked for the state to provide increased training, and funding for training, related to hazardous rail incidents. In addition, he called on the state to provide law enforcement agencies with more information about crude oil transportation through the region, for better access to data, and to upgrade communications technology.

“I’m also calling for Illinois to require railroad companies doing business in Illinois to deploy a train/tank car database for law enforcement and other first responders,” wrote Weitzel. “This database would increase our access to relevant, useful and timely information for incidents of crude oil accident prevention, preparedness, response and recovery.”

Railroads do not notify local police and fire departments of the number of times trains carry dangerous crude oil or other hazardous materials through town.

Last fall, in an article about the potential danger these trains pose, a BNSF railroad spokesman told the Landmark that the company does not disclose that kind of information “for security reasons.” He did say the company shares that information with government officials if they ask for it.

The last 30 days have been bad ones for the railroad industry, featuring several derailments that have ended in fiery explosions and, in at least one instance, crude oil threatening water supplies.

In addition to the Galena derailment last week, a Canadian National train carrying crude oil derailed in northern Ontario on March 7. Several tanker cars involved in the incident caught fire, sending columns of black smoke into the air. That incident followed on the heels of another tanker car derailment less than 30 miles away on Feb. 14.

A Canadian National rail line runs through the entire length of North Riverside and a portion of Riverside.

And on Feb. 16, a CSX Railroad train derailed in Mount Carbon, West Virginia. A tanker car exploded, according to published reports, destroying one house and forcing two towns to evacuate their residents.

One of the more disturbing aspects of all of those incidents is that the failed tank cars were ones specifically designed to help prevent puncturing and exploding.

Should such an incident happen in downtown Riverside, said Weitzel, the result would be nothing short of catastrophic, with the business district, schools, government offices, the police department and two fire houses located so close to the tracks.

“We’d probably have to evacuate the entire village and would be relying on mutual aid from agencies so far away it wouldn’t be of much help,” Weitzel said. “If our facility needed to be evacuated, where would our command center be?”

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