Will new rules make all trains carrying hazardous materials safe?

  • Trains full of tank cars travel through the suburbs every day. Proposed rules would make some, but not all, tank cars safer.

    Trains full of tank cars travel through the suburbs every day. Proposed rules would make some, but not all, tank cars safer. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

  • A serious spill involving diesel fuel occurred at the BNSF Railway's Eola Yard in Aurora in 2005.

    A serious spill involving diesel fuel occurred at the BNSF Railway's Eola Yard in Aurora in 2005. Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Smoke rises from a  train derailment involving eight cars that spans the Elgin and Bartlett borders on Nov. 3, 2011. The call was escaleted to a MABAS Division 2 box alarm and caused major traffic delays in the area as well as bussing concerns for students at the Elgin Area School District U-46.

    Smoke rises from a train derailment involving eight cars that spans the Elgin and Bartlett borders on Nov. 3, 2011. The call was escaleted to a MABAS Division 2 box alarm and caused major traffic delays in the area as well as bussing concerns for students at the Elgin Area School District U-46. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Emergency crews work Saturday, June 20, 2009, at the scene of a train derailment on Mulford Road in Cherry Valley.

    Emergency crews work Saturday, June 20, 2009, at the scene of a train derailment on Mulford Road in Cherry Valley. SCOTT MORGAN/RRSTAR.COM

  • Wreckage lies on the tracks Saturday, June 20, 2009, at the scene of a train derailment on Mulford Road in Cherry Valley.

    Wreckage lies on the tracks Saturday, June 20, 2009, at the scene of a train derailment on Mulford Road in Cherry Valley. SCOTT MORGAN/RRSTAR.COM

  • Hazmat since 1999

    Graphic: Hazmat since 1999 (click image to open)

 
 
Updated 9/26/2014 5:55 AM

More than one-third of Illinois' serious hazardous materials leaks from freight trains occur in the suburbs, which is one reason local safety advocates worry that new rules proposed for faulty tank cars fall short.

The Daily Herald scrutinized federal records and found 51 serious hazmat occurrences involving rail in Illinois over 15 years, with 18 occurring in the six-county region excluding Chicago. A serious incident includes significant releases of dangerous substances, evacuations, injuries or fatalities. No deaths occurred in the suburbs over that time.

 

In total, 345 hazmat accidents involving trains occurred in suburban Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties between 1999 and mid-2014, out of 876 statewide. Suburban hazmat leaks include potentially explosive styrene monomer in Palatine, diesel fuel near Aurora and turpentine in Bensenville.

The new rules

The U.S. Department of Transportation wants older DOT-111 tank cars carrying high-hazard flammable liquids, mainly ethanol and crude oil, phased out or retrofitted within two years. The DOT-111 cars have become the poster children for negligence after contributing to horrific explosions.

One, in Cherry Valley near Rockford, killed a 44-year-old woman in a nearby car and caused her pregnant daughter to lose her unborn child after 19 cars containing ethanol derailed and erupted in a fireball. Another, in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killed 47 and leveled 40 buildings after a runaway train carrying crude oil derailed.

The public has until Tuesday night to comment on proposed requirements for the tank cars to have thicker shells and shields to reduce punctures.

The proposed rules, however, overlook other dangerous hazardous material that travels by train, safety advocates say.

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Acids in trains

The Daily Herald analysis indicates that about one-third of train-related DOT-111 hazmat incidents in the suburbs involve substances such as corrosive liquids that would not have been affected by the proposed new rule.

Seventy-nine hazmat accidents in Illinois involving DOT-111 tank cars released more than 1,400 gallons of corrosive liquids, including sulfuric and hydrochloric acids, between 1999 and July 2014, according to U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration data.

But tank cars that carry corrosive liquids, such as acids, wouldn't be required to conform to the proposed rules. That troubles mayors of some suburbs, where rail lines run through many downtowns and residential neighborhoods in one of the most highly traveled rail corridors in the nation.

The higher standards "should apply to all of them," Hoffman Estates Village President Bill McLeod said.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin has lobbied for replacement of outdated tank cars and called the proposed rules a positive move.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But given the increasing amount of ethanol and highly explosive Bakken crude oil from North Dakota traveling through Illinois, he wants an expedited timetable for replacing the older tank cars.

"There should be a greater sense of urgency," Durbin said.

Rail carloads of Bakken oil shipped in the U.S. spiked from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 415,000 in 2013, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration reported. About 40 trains with crude oil pass through the Chicago area each day, Durbin said.

Suburban critics

Living near the busy Canadian National and Union Pacific railway tracks in Barrington, Mayor Karen Darch said she's witnessed firsthand a spike in oil trains.

The new rules would require improved DOT-111 tank cars for trains with 20 or more carloads of high-hazard flammable liquids such as crude oil or ethanol. Critics contend that gives trains with 19 or fewer carloads of crude oil or ethanol a pass.

The TRAC organization, a Barrington-based coalition aimed at reducing train congestion, said the proposed rule would permit 40 percent of liquid hazmat to continue to be transported in faulty DOT-111 cars.

"The optics are good on this ... but there's a huge gap," Darch said.

TRAC is seeking to have restrictions on deficient tank cars extend beyond just ethanol and crude oil to other petroleum and oil products that aren't included in the proposed new rule.

Darch also was concerned after learning that the stricter tank car standards exempt corrosive materials, such as acids.

"It's important to be forward-looking as long as we're doing new standards," she said.

How rules started

The proposed rules have been in the works for years. In 2011, the American Association of Railroads proposed higher standards for tank cars that carry flammable liquids including ethanol and crude oil.

Out of the DOT-111 fleet of 228,000 tank cars that transport hazardous materials, about 92,000 are used for flammable liquids like ethanol and oil. Roughly 14,000 of the 92,000 are safer, newer cars. The proposed rules would phase in the safer cars as old ones are retired.

The railroad association's president, Edward Hamberger, said in a statement the proposed rules provide a "much-needed pathway for enhancing the safe movement of flammable liquids in the U.S."

CN spokesman Patrick Waldron noted that most tank cars are owned by shippers or leasing companies. "CN has long supported the retrofitting or phaseout of the old DOT-111 cars used to transport flammable liquids and a reinforced standard for new tank cars built in the future," he said.

Union Pacific spokesman Marc Davis said the railroad supports the AAR's position on improving tank car safety. UP's track team visually inspects about 15,500 miles of track daily on its 32,000-mile network in 23 states.

"Derailment prevention is the key in addition to the tank car improvements discussed in the unlikely event there would be an incident," he said.

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