Barrington officials: New rule for gas on trains has 'quite acute' potential for catastrophe
A new player, liquefied natural gas, has joined the list of hazardous materials cruising through Illinois by train -- a move the federal government says is safe but raises fears of out-of-control fires and explosions for some suburbs.
This summer, the U.S. Department of Transportation authorized railroads to haul liquefied natural gas (LNG) across the country.
Prior to approval, more than 460 entities commented -- mostly critically -- on the plan, including Barrington, which is crisscrossed by the Union Pacific and Canadian National railroads.
The potential for a catastrophe "is quite acute," village officials stated. "An uncontrolled LNG release involving fire stemming from a derailment scenario must burn itself out as there is no practical way to extinguish it."
Federal officials are confident that upgraded DOT-113 tank cars with double shells and thick carbon steel can safely contain any spills.
New requirements, such as remote monitoring of tank car pressure, will "provide for the safe transportation of LNG by rail to more parts of the country where this energy source is needed," U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao stated.
Fifteen state attorney generals, including Illinois' Kwame Raoul, have asked a federal appeals court to declare the regulation illegal.
The policy permitting trains with 80 to 100 cars, each holding up to 30,000 gallons of liquefied natural gas, was rushed through without safeguards like speed limits, and "puts our residents and communities at risk," Raoul stated.
Liquefied natural gas mostly consists of methane that is chilled until it liquefies so it can be transported. But the gas can easily revert to an odorless, colorless vapor that's hard to detect if a tank car is breached, Barrington officials warn.
"It's highly flammable and it's scary in communities like Barrington with so many homes right near the tracks," Mayor Karen Darch said.
Previously, liquefied natural gas was mainly delivered in trucks, but energy companies could obtain special federal permits to transport it by rail.
In April 2019, President Donald Trump issued an executive order to expand domestic energy production and update regulations that included the liquefied natural gas rule.
Without action, "energy costs will rise and the national energy market will be stifled," Trump said.
Numerous safety advocates warned liquefied natural gas is more volatile than other liquefied gases carried on trains -- burning hotter and with a higher propensity to ignite.
Federal regulators countered that specialized DOT-113 tank cars carrying liquefied gases have a 40-year safety record that includes "no train-accident related fatalities or serious injuries in over 100,000 shipments."
The metro region had a close call June 30, 2017, when 20 out of 115 freight cars derailed in Plainfield. Three railcars leaked about 40,000 gallons of crude oil into a commercial area near Route 59 but no injuries or explosions occurred.
That is something the nearby Naperville Fire Department constantly trains for, Chief Mark Puknaitis said.
"We have plans for all those situations and we have resources to combat them" ranging from a portable foam generator to drones to ongoing communication with freight railroads, Puknaitis explained. "I can tell you on any given day what is flowing through our community."
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