Freight train hazmat leaks increase significantly in 2014

  • Traffic backs up as a CN container train passes the Lake-Cook Road crossing in Barrington.

      Traffic backs up as a CN container train passes the Lake-Cook Road crossing in Barrington. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

  • A southbound Canadian National Railway train carrying crude oil crosses Route 14 in Barrington.

      A southbound Canadian National Railway train carrying crude oil crosses Route 14 in Barrington. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

  • Traffic begins to move following passage of a Canadian National Railway train at the Lake-Cook Road crossing in Barrington.

      Traffic begins to move following passage of a Canadian National Railway train at the Lake-Cook Road crossing in Barrington. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

  • Tank cars with placards indicating they could be carrying potassium hydroxide, a corrosive, cross Lake-Cook Road in Barrington.

      Tank cars with placards indicating they could be carrying potassium hydroxide, a corrosive, cross Lake-Cook Road in Barrington. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

 
 

More than 4,150 gallons of hazardous materials leaked in Illinois from freight train cars in 2014.

To put that into context, it's 22 times more than in 2013, when 187 gallons spilled into the environment.

With a March derailment in Galena where crude oil tank cars exploded, 2015 is trending in a troubling way. More than 110,500 gallons of hazmat was released in the first quarter, mostly attributable to Galena.

Overall, there were 37 hazmat releases in Illinois from trains in 2014, according to U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration statistics.

Occurrences include: hydrochloric acid spilling near Aurora because of loose bolt nuts, an over-pressurized tank car leaking refrigerated liquid carbon dioxide in Bensenville, and crude oil vapor venting in Northlake due to a misaligned gasket.

Unlike the Galena catastrophe, most were low-key cases. And all appeared preventable. For example, 22 percent of releases happened because of loose closures and devices on tank cars.

Nineteen percent of spills transpired because shipments weren't properly packed, braced or prepared.

Sixteen percent of spills occurred because of a defective component, such as a deteriorated gasket.

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And 11 percent of hazmat releases were caused by a valve being left open.

The biggest release came Dec. 15, when a train derailed at low speed in a Bedford Park rail yard, flopped over on its side and punctured a tank car that spewed out about 4,000 gallons of an unspecified flammable liquid.

Most of these blunders -- 59 percent -- involved older tank cars.

Only one of these 37 hazmat releases was caused by a derailment.

But derailments clearly raise the potential for spills.

There were 108 derailments in Illinois in 2014 -- more than half which occurred in Chicago and the suburbs, the FRA reports. About 20 percent of the 108 occurrences involved trains with tank cars that carried but did not release hazmat.

The occurrences varied from minor -- train wheels leaving the tracks -- to significant. High winds toppled 17 tank cars, two containing hazmat, near Peoria on April 28. Human error caused a derailment with four hazmat tank cars near Homewood on July 27. A broken rail derailed four cars carrying hazmat near Joliet on Aug. 16.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The odds trouble safety advocates like Barrington Mayor Karen Darch. Referencing a crude oil derailment, explosion and evacuation in rural North Dakota on Wednesday, Darch said, "If that happened here, it would be a disaster."

What lies ahead for the rest of 2015? It's tough to say.

In the wake of recurring oil train disasters, the Federal Railroad Administration on May 1 announced stricter regulations for tank cars.

The changes require higher standards for tank cars built as of October 2015 to carry highly flammable liquids and retrofitting older, accident-prone models with better brakes and stronger shells over a period of 10 years.

It's an improvement, but there are some disturbing loopholes, say mayors of suburbs with busy freight tracks.

The rules are limited to highly flammable liquids, such as ethanol and crude oil, not all flammable liquids or corrosives.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The regulations affect only trains carrying highly flammable liquids in 20 consecutive tank cars or in 35 cars distributed along the train.

They also keep unsafe tank cars in use for years -- shippers have until May 2023 to replace or fix cars carrying crude oil and until May 2025 for those transporting ethanol, Darch said. She hopes Congress will impose more stringent standards.

"There's a huge gaping hole in the rules that put communities at risk," Darch said.

The FRA, however, called the retrofitting schedule "aggressive," adding it "balances the industry's abilities, while enhancing the safe transport of energy products as rapidly as possible."

Your voice

Nancy Asquini Dean of north Arlington Heights writes, "I'm sitting here having my morning coffee listening to the constant rumbling of low-flying jets every few minutes. Every evening I listen to this constant drone and there is no place in the house to escape from this rumble. (Recently) I was driving south on Arlington Heights Road when a plane flying north was so low I could almost read the letters. Why are planes flying so low now? This didn't happen years ago.

"My window sills are now covered with a black film. The low-flying jets lead me to believe it's jet fuel. What else could it be?"

Got thoughts about tank cars, O'Hare or anything transportation? Drop me an email at mpyke@dailyherald.com.

Gridlock alert

This sounds annoying. IDOT will mix things up for drivers on Route 20 and Route 83 at Salt Creek near Addison with lane reductions and temporary closures starting today. The bridge painting work lasts through Sept. 25.

Upcoming

Pilots and air traffic controllers have long-distance relationships, but on June 6 they'll be as one. The National Air Traffic Controllers Association will host its Chicago Aviation Symposium focused on "Bridging the Gap," from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Lewis University Harold E. White Aviation Center in Romeoville. Pilots of all categories and ratings are welcomed. For info, contact chicagoaviationsymposium@gmail.com.

Purple and Red redo

The CTA is embarking on a significant rebuild of the north segment of the Red Line and Purple Line north of Belmont. The project, which would add capacity to the routes, includes new stations at Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn and Bryn Mawr. Work could start in 2017. To learn more and review plans, go to www.transitchicago.com/rpmproject.

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