Hazmat traveling by train through suburbs raises concerns

  • A freight train that derailed in Lake Forest was hauling cars with sulfur, a hazardous material. Fortunately, none of the chemical seeped out of the railroad tank cars.

    A freight train that derailed in Lake Forest was hauling cars with sulfur, a hazardous material. Fortunately, none of the chemical seeped out of the railroad tank cars. Courtesy of ABC 7 Chicago

  • Naperville firefighters train on how to deal with a hazardous materials situation on a railway.

    Naperville firefighters train on how to deal with a hazardous materials situation on a railway. Daily Herald File Photo

Updated 3/27/2017 11:00 AM

Nine railcars carrying liquid sulfur toppled over March 15 in Lake Forest, and not a drop spilled, authorities say.

Is that a wake-up call given that a hazardous chemical could have leaked close to homes, businesses and a nature preserve? Or proof that the rail system transporting millions of tons of hazmat across the U.S. every day is safe?


"It's probably a combination of both," says Lake Forest Mayor Donald P. Schoenheider. "We were very fortunate to have no injuries, no loss of life or property damage."

Federal authorities are still investigating what caused the derailment of 11 Union Pacific Railroad tank cars -- nine containing sulfur and two empty -- near busy Route 41. It's not an isolated case.

Federal records show 33 hazardous materials releases involving trains occurred in Illinois in 2016. There were 22 in 2015, including a crude oil derailment and explosion in Galena on March 5.

Although the majority were minor and caused no harm, such as the Lake Forest case, "an incident like this is a stark reminder that accidents do happen," said U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider, a Deerfield Democrat.

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Between 2012 and 2016, an average of 34 rail-related hazardous materials releases a year were reported in Illinois, according to U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration data.

The frequency of the occurrences ebbed and flowed: 33 in 2016, 22 in 2015, 38 in 2014, 35 in 2013 and 42 in 2012.

Here's a look at some 2016 cases:

• Three workers were treated after being exposed to hydrogen sulfide sodium Oct. 18 at an Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad yard in Riverdale. Toxic vapors from the chemical that is used in manufacturing leaked from a faulty gasket.

• About 660 pounds of polymeric beads, used to make plastic products and containing flammable material, spilled May 28 in Galesburg on a BNSF freight train after the container ripped because of inadequate preparation for transport.

• Fifty gallons of phosphoric acid spilled from a tank car because of a leaky valve at a corporate rail terminal on July 15 in Bridgeview.

• About 45 gallons of an unidentified flammable liquid seeped from a drum that was punctured by a forklift Aug. 3 at a BNSF facility in Elwood, near Joliet.


• Twenty gallons of sulfuric acid leaked Sept. 15 in East St. Louis when several Alton and Southern Railway railcars bumped into each other, blowing a gasket on the railcar containing the corrosive chemical.

Much attention has focused nationally on the surge in tank cars carrying crude oil and ethanol, a trend raising local concerns after a 2008 merger between the Canadian National Railroad and the smaller EJ&E Railroad that increased freight trains in some suburbs.

The Federal Railroad Administration has required retrofitting and replacements of older tank cars carrying highly flammable liquids like crude oil after several tragic derailments and explosions, including one near Rockford in 2009.

But the upgrade doesn't include tank cars carrying other dangerous chemicals, such as sulfur.

These days, "a lot of people get worked up about the oil, but that doesn't take away from the other nasty stuff that moves by rail," Northwestern University rail expert and economist Ian Savage said.

A 2005 train collision in Graniteville, South Carolina, grabbed public attention when nine people died from inhaling chlorine gas that was released, Savage recalled.

That tragedy contributed to improved hazmat training and protocols to give police and firefighters fast access to information about what hazmat freight trains are hauling, Savage said.

In the Lake Forest derailment, firefighters were able to take advantage of a smartphone app that identified the contents of the tank cars, Schoenheider said.

But with an average 112 derailments a year in Illinois, including major and minor ones between 2012 and 2016, there's more work to do, Schneider said.

"I look forward to meeting with the FRA executive director soon to discuss the investigation and what steps can be taken to improve safety," he said.

UP's Calli Hite noted that railroads are required to transport hazardous materials by law. "The safety of our communities and employees is Union Pacific's No. 1 priority. We take very seriously the shipping of hazardous materials -- which are critical ingredients in things all Americans use in their daily lives," Hite said.

"More than 99.99 percent of rail hazmat shipments reach their destination without a release caused by a train accident," she said.

Gridlock alert

Reagan Memorial Tollway drivers should watch out for intermittent roadway closures overnight near the Farnsworth Avenue exit this week as workers remove a bridge beam at the interchange.

One more thing

If you and the kids have cabin fever during March break, Metra has a number of deals for families, including a weekend fare that lets up to three children age 11 and younger ride free with a paying adult. On weekdays, up to three kids age 7 and under don't pay if a parental unit has a pass or ticket.

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