Mistakes, equipment issues pose serious threats with rail-related hazmat
While images of crude oil infernos caused by freight train derailments haunt many living near rail lines, a more statistically likely and troubling reality looms.
Hundreds of rail-related hazardous materials releases occur regularly in the suburbs, spilling chemicals into the environment that range from acids to ammonia.
The causes? Deficient maintenance, old equipment and sloppiness, the data shows.
The Daily Herald surveyed 15½ years of railway hazmat reports across Illinois. Out of 876 statewide occurrences -- averaging at least one a week -- about one-third were caused by a loose closure or device on the train car or other equipment, federal records show.
Some releases are minor, others significant. But trivial mistakes can snowball into unwanted pollution.
For example: One open valve on a tank car spilled 200 gallons of diesel fuel on BNSF Railway lines near Aurora in 2005. Four loose bolts led to 176 gallons of sulfuric acid leaking on a Norfolk Southern Railway line in downstate Roxana in 2003. Twice, a loose bolt from a tank car on a CN train in Buffalo Grove released chemical fumes, with one leading to a factory evacuation in 2005. And an unsecured valve allowed 1,234 gallons of sulfuric acid to seep out on CN Railway tracks in Willow Springs in 2002.
The failures involve multiple sources. Railroads, mandated to accept hazmat loads, say the fault rests with shippers and tank car manufacturers when it comes to spills not caused by accidents such as derailments.
"The vast majority of tank cars are owned by shippers or railway-rolling-stock leasing companies who are responsible for the maintenance and qualification of their privately owned equipment -- not railways," Canadian National Railway spokesman Patrick Waldron said.
In Aurora, which is crisscrossed by two major freight railroads, Mayor Tom Weisner said he's fed up with what he considers the government's mediocre standards and milquetoast regulations.
"The regulators need to get serious about what they're doing," Weisner said.
Mishaps involving freight cargo might be comical if the contents spilling out were grain or plastic bags. But when a train is transporting explosive gases, vinyl chloride -- which causes dizziness and headaches along with more serious side effects, or flammable liquids like the notorious Bakken crude oil, safety experts want no room for error.
"So many rail lines are next to stream beds or bodies of water. ... One car can cause a lot of trouble," Weisner said.
The Daily Herald reviewed U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration data from 1999 through mid-2014.
Compounded, the pollution toll is significant. Statewide, more than 356,770 gallons of chemicals and oil, almost 60 cubic feet of chemical gases and more than 114,225 pounds of hazmat were released.
Over 21 percent of releases were related to improper or inadequate preparation for transportation, which means anything from cracked seals on containers to loose valves.
Eleven percent were due to broken or defective components, 9 percent weren't specified by the railroads, and 4 percent were cars being overfilled. Another 4 percent were caused by deterioration or aging of equipment.
Releases occurred in a range of locations, from rail yards to along the tracks.
"The explosions are very scary, but we have this daily emission problem of chemicals escaping," said chemical engineer Diane Bailey, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"People who live along these routes and terminals are exposed day-in and day-out. It may seem really small, but it can add up to a tremendous risk."
Railroads including BNSF, Union Pacific and Canadian National pointed out that chemical shippers and manufacturers are responsible for labeling products, selecting the rail cars and preparing cargo for transportation.
On the Union Pacific Railroad, incidents decreased with frequent inspections and improvements to loading practices, UP spokesman Mark Davis said.
"Non-accident releases of hazardous materials in tank cars have declined more than 15 percent on UP's network from 2004 to 2013, due in part to increased inspections by the railroad's hazardous materials safety field personnel," Davis said.
Waldron of CN added that crew members, railroad mechanical employees and dangerous goods officers inspect hazmat from inside rail yards to customer facilities regularly.
BNSF media relations director Roxanne Butler said the railroad has an intervention program with its shippers on properly preparing cargo. "We want safe transportation of hazmat commodities to ensure the items remain in rail cars and do not impact the public," Butler said.
Railway Supply Institute President Tom Simpson said most of the occurrences the Daily Herald found "involve 'non-accident releases' that mostly occur when the tank cars are out of ownership control." The institute represents tank car manufacturers.
The National Association of Chemical Distributors said it was "committed to the safe transport of chemical products throughout the United States. We are keenly aware of our responsibility to protect both our workers and communities, and we work tirelessly toward that goal every day," spokesman Matthew McKinney said.
Petroleum industry representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
Railroad officials frequently point out that more than 99.9 percent of hazardous material gets safely to its destination.
That's not comforting when you consider the odds, Weisner warns. Nearly 500 freight trains travel through the region daily, the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning estimates, or 182,500 annually.
Roughly 40 freight trains carrying crude oil pass through Chicago each week, and that number is expected to spike, federal analyses show.
In a 2013 Senate hearing on freight safety, officials from the Government Office of Accountability testified the Federal Railroad Administration is hamstrung by a shortage of inspectors and pending retirements of experienced staff members.
There are about 470 federal inspectors and 170 state inspectors covering 200,000 miles of track, the office said.
After a series of fatal crashes last decade, Congress enacted the Railway Safety Improvement Act of 2008. It required major railroads to submit risk reduction plans by 2012. There's been pushback from some railroads, however, related to passing on confidential information to the government.
In the meantime, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a proposed rule in September requiring older DOT-111 cars that carry certain types of highly flammable liquids like ethanol or crude Bakken oil from North Dakota to be pulled from service within two years.
The DOT-111s gained infamy from a series of fatal derailments, such as the Lac Magantic derailment in Canada that killed 47 and an explosion near Rockford that killed a woman and caused her pregnant daughter to lose her baby. Investigators found the older models are prone to breaches.
The railroad industry supports the upgrades. However, shippers and manufacturers have pushed back.
The Railroad Safety Institute "has been a strong advocate for the development of new standards for tank cars for many years," Simpson said.
But the government's proposal could cost the economy $60 billion because it will shift hazmat transport from rail to trucks, the institute contends.
The rule also is being criticized as too weak by environmentalists, municipalities and fire departments, who think the two-year window is too long for such unreliable cars. Some criticize the pullout for being just limited to one level of flammable liquids and not other hazardous material.
"The most immediate problem is the highly explosive substances," Weisner said. "But even if a chemical isn't highly explosive, there are numerous chemicals that can cause severe degradation to the environment if they're spilled."
Hazards: Some criticize 2-year period to remove older train cars
Small problems lead to pollutionHere's a look at a sampling of mishaps leading to pollution and/or public concern:
• A rubber lining fails and acid burns a hole in a tank car at the EJ&E Railroad (now CN) yard in Joliet releasing 800 gallons -- July 2001.
• A loose bolt on a tank car allows vapor to escape from a CN train in Buffalo Grove. The chemical smell is noxious and firefighters evacuate a nearby factory -- June 2005.
• Loose plugs on a tank car release a highly explosive liquid, hexene, at the EJ&E's yard in Joliet -- March 2006.
• Flammable liquid sloshes out of a loose manhole atop an EJ&E tank car and onto a public street in North Chicago -- October 2008.
• Another loose bolt from a tank car on a CN train in Buffalo Grove allows chemical fumes to permeate the air once more -- February 2011.
• A vapor cloud emerges after 857 gallons of hydrofluoric acid spill in Union Pacific Railway's Dupo yard downstate after workers brace a load with wooden 2-by-4s, not the requisite 2-by-6s -- March 2012.