Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel has filed an official objection to a November decision by the U.S Department of Transportation rejecting higher safety standards for railroad tank cars that carry volatile materials through the village every day.
On Nov. 5, Marie Therese Dominguez, an administrator with the department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, brushed off concerns from the Association of American Railroads, which asked for greater thermal protection for tank cars.
The AAR, whose members include all of the nation’s leading rail carriers including the BNSF and Canadian National, is, according to its website, “world’s leading railroad policy, research, standard setting and technology organization that focuses on the safety and productivity of the U.S. freight rail industry.”
Specifically, the AAR requested that tank cars be built to withstand being immersed in a pool of burning liquid for 800 minutes. But Dominguez stated in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s ruling that the AAR’s conclusions weren’t supported by evidence and could provide a false sense of security for first responders.
The department’s ruling that tank cars be required to withstand a pool fire for at least 100 minutes provides the kind of minimum standard needed, Dominguez wrote, and provided first responders “adequate time to assess a derailment, establish perimeters and evacuate the public as needed.”
Weitzel characterized that conclusion as ludicrous.
“There’s no possible way we can do that in an hour and a half,” said Weitzel.
Weitzel said that it would take at least an hour for mutual aid units, many of which are purposely located far from Riverside, to get to the village, suit up and get their assignments.
“That’s an hour to an hour and 15 minutes, easily,” Weitzel said.
Riverside police — as well as Brookfield and North Riverside, through which so-called “bomb trains” also run frequently — are part of Illinois Law Enforcement Alarm System, which was formed in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The ILEAS region Riverside, Brookfield and North Riverside belong to includes Cook, Lake and DuPage counties, and agencies responding to an incident in the local area would likely be from municipalities not affected by an incident.
“It pulls agencies from farther away, because they’re not impacted,” Weitzel said.
Riverside Fire Chief Matthew Buckley said he supports Weitzel’s objection to the federal ruling, saying it also takes time for firefighting resources to be mobilized.
“[One hundred minutes] doesn’t provide us a whole lot of time,” Buckley said. “The more time we have to get our operations working, the better for us.”
A tank car spill or fire in downtown Riverside would trigger an alarm to the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS), which is a sister agency to ILEAS.
According to Buckley, an incident like that would require the mobilization of MABAS foam depots, the closest of which is in Forest View and has just 500 gallons. There are other sources of foam — at the airports and in other MABAS divisions, but they are scattered across the area.
“We’d need a lot of foam,” Buckley said. “It’d take more than an hour and a half to get all that foam there.”
According to Weitzel, about 80 to 120 trains pass through Riverside and Brookfield on the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad line on a daily basis. Many of those trains carry hazardous materials such as ethanol, crude oil and chlorine.
In the past year, law enforcement and fire agencies have been able to access a smartphone app called AskRail that can be used to determine what materials are being transported through the village.
All Riverside police officers have the app installed on their phones. Weitzel said he’s used the app to check random tank car trains to see what’s being hauled through the village.
“There’s gasoline, flammables, aviation fuel,” Weitzel said. “I counted 128 tank cars on one train that was inbound into Chicago.”
Weitzel on Nov. 17 wrote a letter to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony R. Foxx pleading with him to “intervene” and “extend the life of the retrofitted tanker cars to 800 minutes of burn time or some other agreed upon middle ground between 800 and 100 minutes.
“I’m going on the record stating that this will potentially harm and possibly cause loss of life for first responders.”
The police chief also contacted Sen. Richard Durbin’s office to express his displeasure with the federal ruling. Durbin has been a proponent of increased tank car safety standards.
“He’s very involved,” said Weitzel, adding he talked to a Durbin staffer who assured him that Durbin “was not in agreement with the 100-minute rule.”
Weitzel’s concerns come in the wake of several incidents in recent years in which trains hauling tank cars filled with hazardous materials have derailed, puncturing tanks which exploded into flames.
One of those incidents involved a Canadian National train that would have ended up traveling through both North Riverside and Riverside in 2009. The train, which was carrying ethanol, derailed in Cherry Valley, near Rockford. Several cars were punctured and the resulting fire killed one, injured several other people and led to the evacuation of about 600 homes.
In 2013, a BNSF train hauling tank cars experienced a minor derailment in Brookfield. There was no hazardous incident, but it highlighted the possibility of a more serious incident.
“With Chicago being a transportation hub for rail traffic,” said Weitzel, “for us to think it’ll never happen is wrong.”