Local fire chiefs worry about train hazmat incidents

A continued spike in oil trains and recent high-profile explosions and pollution spills across the United States have suburban fire departments playing defense.

First-responders interviewed by the Daily Herald for this series of reports on railway hazardous materials releases said they train continually and have mutual aid agreements for worst-case scenarios. But all the forethought in the world could be trumped by issues beyond their control, authorities warn.

“If you had a major incident involving Bakken oil, it would tax several community resources, not just one community,” Lisle-Woodridge Fire Protection District Deputy Chief Keith Krestan said.

“We train ... we are prepared for the 'what ifs.' But ... no department in the state of Illinois is going to have all the resources on hand to deal with a major railroad incident.”

It's more than theoretical in places like Glen Ellyn, where a 1976 derailment spilled ammonia, leading to a massive evacuation and 14 injuries.

Farther afield, fatal explosions near Rockford and in Quebec — caused respectively by ethanol and crude oil, the volatile fuel obtained by fracking in North Dakota — have raised debate over using outdated, accident-prone tank cars (called DOT-111s) to transport flammable liquids.

And fuel isn't the only hazardous material emergency firefighters face, records show. The Daily Herald reviewed 15½ years of hazmat reports involving trains and found 345 occurrences in the metropolitan region.

The types of chemicals and fuels firefighters could battle on any given day include toxins that pose a health threat with significant exposure such as hydrochloric acid, ammonia or the solvent xylene, and highly flammable liquids such as ethanol or Bakken crude oil.

Most suburban fire departments belong to Mutual-Aid Box Alarm Systems that pool multiple towns' resources in a crisis.

“The beauty of the program is that we all agree to send whatever we can to help the cause,” said Itasca Fire Protection District Chief James Burke, Division 12 president of MABAS.

But there are limitations.

In the case of a major incident involving crude oil, “there probably isn't a fire chief out there who would say we have enough (foam) on hand to do what we need to do,” Burke said.

As one of Illinois' largest cities, Aurora has about 195 firefighters.

The department has an impressive array of gadgets, from computers that detect chemicals to portable weather stations that help model where winds could send dangerous vapors. There are about 30 hazmat specialists on hand.

It's a robust program, Fire Chief John Lehman said, but he's concerned it could be outmatched by the rise in oil and chemical trains.

“You roll over a couple of freight train cars and it can overwhelm our resources pretty quickly,” he said.

Aurora hazmat specialist John Ross has a simple wish: “More training.”

Railroads defended their record on that issue, noting the industry sends many firefighters to a hazmat training school in Colorado.

The Canadian National Railroad's “outreach includes a wide variety of training opportunities,” spokesman Patrick Waldron said.

Those range from drills such as one held this fall in Naperville to classes across the country, he added.

Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis noted that the railroad annually trains about 2,500 local, state and federal first-responders on ways to minimize the impact of a potential derailment.

“Union Pacific has trained nearly 38,000 public responders ... since 2003,” he added.

“This includes classroom and hands-on training. In 2014, Union Pacific has trained 314 emergency responders on crude oil safety.”

BNSF spokeswoman Roxanne Butler said the railroad trained 8,619 first-responders this year.

“We'll go to any fire department along our railroad and host a hands-on training,” she said.

The Federal Railroad Administration proposes phasing out older DOT-111s that transport ethanol and crude oil within two years. But the policy gives the industry an out, firefighters say, by limiting the restrictions to trains with 20 or more high-hazard flammable cars.

“The (BNSF) railroad goes through almost all of our central business district ... if we had a train that was transporting Bakken oil and we had an accident and spill and a few of the containers caught fire — it would have a significant long-term impact on the community,” Lisle-Woodridge's Krestan said.

“A lot of the containers don't meet today's standards. If I was the most powerful person in Congress, that would be the biggest thing,” Krestan said.

“Make it simple ... if it's hazmat, it has to be in an up-to-date, certified container.”

The American Association of Railroads said its members support modernized, more durable tank cars.

With busy Union Pacific tracks bisecting his community, Glen Ellyn Volunteer Fire Company Chief Jim Bodony knows trains carrying hazmat will pass through town frequently.

What he balks at are trains potentially carrying ethanol or crude oil idling on tracks for hours on end.

“When you start parking freights and turn residential areas into chemical storage facilities ... that's wrong,” Bodony said. “Imagine if something happened at 2 in the morning, and it went undetected and went into Lake Ellyn.”

The complaint is not exclusive to Union Pacific. Other mayors and fire chiefs across the region also said that parked freights, particularly ones left unattended, tempt fate.

“If anyone else went for zoning, they'd send them packing,” Bodony said. “But (trains) can roll in and park for a couple of days and then move.”

His fears aren't unprecedented. Before dawn on May 16, 1976, a Chicago and North Western Railway (now UP) train derailed after hitting another freight train on a curve just west of Glen Ellyn, causing a carload of ammonia to gush out, injuring 14 people.

Parts of Glen Ellyn and Glendale Heights were evacuated for hours, and the chemical went into the sewers, polluting Lake Ellyn and killing fish.

If there's a serious release from a tank car, the faster firefighters know what substances are or could be involved, the better, Barrington Fire Chief Jim Arie said.

Existing policies — where a paper manifest is handed over to first-responders — just aren't pragmatic, he thinks.

“We're looking at some trains that are two miles long. If we're at the back of the train and the conductor's in the engine, we've got quite a stroll to get to the paperwork,” he said.

“If something's on fire while you're trying to evacuate, you're chasing the clock.”

He wants real-time electronic access from the railroads as to what chemicals are on the train. So far, that hasn't materialized.

“They've got a lot of concerns about security, which I appreciate,” Arie said. “But we're not the enemy.”

CN's Waldron said the railroad's police communications center can email or fax a train manifest to first-responders when requested during an emergency.

CN and other railroads are offering a mobile app for emergency response officials that “provides immediate access to accurate, near-real-time information about railcars carrying hazardous materials on a train,” Waldron said. “Access to this accurate, near-real-time data can help emergency responders make informed decisions about how to respond to a rail emergency.”

The BNSF's Butler said the railroad has an emergency number for firefighters to call and get critical information.

“We don't delay on that,” she said.

Will new rules make all trains carrying hazardous materials safe?

Equipment issues pose serious threats on the rails

  Aurora Fire Department technology enables its hazmat team to map the likely direction of dangerous chemical vapors. Scott Sanders/
  Aurora Fire Department hazmat specialist John Ross looks at a portable weather station that monitors temperature, humidity, wind direction and speed. Scott Sanders/
A May 1976 train derailment in Glen Ellyn leaked ammonia into the community's sewers. Some ended up in Lake Ellyn, killing fish. Courtesy of THE Glen Ellyn Historical Society
  Aurora firefighter/paramedic John Ross is a hazmat specialist who is one of 21 members of the force who are trained to monitor hazardous material situations. The monitors send information back to this portable computer, which displays data including maps of how clouds of poisonous gasses are dispersing for potential evacuation situations. Scott Sanders/
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