Editorial: Risks of hazardous rail spills remain uncomfortable

  • Railroad crossing at Main Street and Lageschulte in Barrington.

      Railroad crossing at Main Street and Lageschulte in Barrington. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer ¬

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted5/12/2015 5:57 AM

Even if outsiders don't share her zeal, it's easy to understand if Barrington Mayor Karen Darch is prone to respond with skepticism to regulators' proposals for reducing risks of rail-line accidents. Rail traffic through the town has increased more than threefold in recent years. The traffic disruption alone would tend to make any community's leadership unrelenting when it comes to rail issues.

But new federal statistics on rail-line accidents reinforce the reservations expressed by leaders like Darch whose towns experience significant rail traffic. On Monday, Daily Herald transportation and projects writer Marni Pyke ran down a litany of troubling, if not unnerving, events from 2014, including:


• More than 4,150 gallons of hazardous materials leaked into the environment in Illinois last year, mostly as a result of preventable accidents.

• Accidents of various types led to 37 hazardous materials spills in the state. This year, one in Galena involved more than 110,500 gallons of hazardous materials.

• Substances leaked into the environment included hydrochloric acid in Aurora, refrigerated liquid carbon dioxide in Bensenville and crude oil vapor in Northlake.

• More than one leak in five occurred because of inadequate preparation or handling. More than one in six occurred because of defective equipment,

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Inadequate handling of dangerous materials, transported on aging equipment that is not maintained as well as it could be ... These are not conditions that inspire confidence.

Granted, with the exception of the Galena occurrence, most of the leaks so far have been minor and posed limited health threats that could be successfully managed. But, there's no getting around the rapid increase in rail traffic as crude oil flows southward from the thriving oil fields of Canada and the Dakotas in the United States nor the spate of four derailments across the U.S. and Canada that have resulted in massive explosions.

One such disaster in the heavily populated suburbs is a terrifying spectacle to consider.

Thankfully, as Pyke also reported, suburban emergency personnel like those in Elgin who conducted practice exercises last month are working to ensure that they're prepared in the event of a catastrophe, and the Federal Railway Administration has released new, stricter rules about how railroads can transport certain substances.

Darch remains, in her word, "underwhelmed" by the new regulations. The agency responds that it and the railroads are acting "aggressively" to ensure safety. We're not sure yet where we fall between the extremes of those assessments, but given the troubling trend of the past year or so, we know that suburban residents need a lot more reassurance before they'll be impressed.

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