Chicago Suburbs have dodged a bullet so far with hazmat derailments — so far

Source: Daily Herald

Naperville resident Kathy Benson is concerned about a serious spill involving an oil train on the BNSF Railroad near her neighborhood.
 Naperville resident Kathy Benson is concerned about a serious spill involving an oil train on the BNSF Railroad near her neighborhood.
Marni Pyke/mpyke/@daily

On any given day, Naperville resident Kathy Benson is likely to drive under a railway bridge where she witnesses firsthand the exponential growth of freight trains carrying oil.

“These are very long trains,” said Benson, a member of Naperville’s Transportation Advisory Board. “I’m concerned about the number of oil trains that come through the city of Naperville and other highly populated areas. It’s extremely flammable, and I think the federal government should adopt standards that make the tank cars far safer.”

It sounds like a simple goal, but the desire for better tank cars is at the center of a furious debate involving the government, hazardous materials shippers, manufacturers and communities close to railroad tracks.

A proposed rule by the U.S. Department of Transportation to update older hazmat tank cars (dubbed DOT-111s) that carry highly flammable liquids like ethanol and crude oil is under consideration and could be finalized in 2015. The intent is to prevent breaches of older tank cars, reflecting national concerns given the increase in oil trains and deadly high-profile derailments near Rockford and Quebec in 2009 and 2013, respectively.

Many derailments, however, fly under the radar.

The Daily Herald reviewed 15½ years of hazardous materials reports statewide and found derailments were the cause in about 3 percent of 876 cases.

Here’s a closer look at some derailments in northeastern Illinois that didn’t make huge headlines but involved hazardous material, according to the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration.

• Sixty gallons of hydrochloric acid spilled from a CSX train at a Riverdale yard in July 2000 during a switching procedure. The tank car rolled over, and an inlet was cracked causing a leak.

• A Norfolk Southern Railway train leaked 500 gallons of alcohol N.O.S. (not otherwise specified) in November 2005 after a derailment caused a crack in a tank car. The incident occurred in Momence, just east of Bourbounnais. The N.O.S. designation usually refers to alcohol mixtures with up to 5 percent petroleum products.

• A low-speed collision in a Canadian National rail yard in Chicago in August 2007 caused a small puncture in a DOT-111 tank car, resulting in about 270 gallons of alcohol N.O.S. to leak.

• A CSX train car derailed in a yard in Riverdale, which led to damage to pipes and resulted in a small amount of solid hazardous waste spilling in September 2009.
There also have been some close calls. In November 2011, a broken rail caused a CN train traveling at 40 mph near Bartlett to derail 22 cars, including two carrying hazmat chemicals. One car carrying a corrosive chemical had a cracked safety vent nozzle. The second car, transporting sodium hydroxide solution, sustained some damage. Nothing was released.

Railroads back upgrades to tank cars, Association of American Railroads spokesman Ed Greenberg said. “The AAR has long been a strong advocate for increased tank car design standards and has been calling for an aggressive retrofit or phaseout program.”

“CN has an unwavering commitment to safety, which is evidenced by the long-term improvement in its safety performance and the fact that 99.998 percent of CN movements of dangerous goods arrive at destination without a release caused by an accident,” CN spokesman Patrick Waldron said.

CSX spokeswoman Melanie Cost pointed out that “under the interstate commerce laws, CSX is a common carrier, required to transport any commodity tendered to it in a federally approved container.”

“Safety is CSX’s highest priority,” she added. “CSX’s goal is to deliver all of our customers’ freight safely with zero accidents. Our highly trained employees work every day to achieve that goal and in the cases where we do not achieve it, they respond quickly and professionally to limit the impact on the communities we serve, the environment and our customers.”

Public comment on the proposed rule to update tank cars closed Sept. 30. The U.S. Department of Transportation is reviewing public comments on the policy.
“We have received over 3,000 comments and are seeking to address them in a deliberative and open manner,” said Gordon Delcambre, a spokesman for the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration, an agency of U.S. DOT.

But decisions will be made amid a politically charged atmosphere with Congress at war, the industrial lobby in high gear and the 2016 presidential election looming.
“The fight over the proposed tank car rule will continue to percolate in 2015,” predicted DePaul University transportation professor Joseph Schwieterman.
For residents living near rail lines, the issue is simple.

“If it’s going to be transported by rail, it should be by as safe a mechanism as possible,” said Benson, Naperville’s Transportation Advisory Board member. “It’s important that safety trumps profits in that regard.”