'We were very lucky': Plainfield's escape from train disaster gives town pause
When does a debacle involving 40,000 gallons of crude oil spewing into the ground, perfuming the air with noxious odors and unnerving nearby residents, seem like a blessing?
When it's not the worst-case scenario.
The Canadian National Railway tank cars that derailed June 30 in Plainfield didn't explode. No one was injured. And the DuPage River wasn't contaminated.
But such a close call is a reminder of what's at stake in transporting hazardous materials by train.
"We were very lucky in this instance," Plainfield Fire Chief David Riddle said. "There was no fire, nobody got hurt by the grace of God."
Twenty out of 115 railcars on the CN freight train derailed, with two leaks spilling crude oil in a commercial area close to Route 59 and 143rd Street. Much of the pollution was contained to a trench for a natural gas pipeline and didn't reach the river.
Cindy Hamilton was returning from a restaurant with her three grandchildren, ages 7, 13 and 15. "All of a sudden everywhere I looked, there were police cars and emergency vehicles with their lights flashing," she said.
When she arrived at her home on Naperville Road after navigating blocked streets, a message was waiting alerting residents of a possible evacuation, Hamilton said.
"It was sort of scary ... but we were fine. The little one was a little upset," she said.
After smelling oil in the air and checking online, Mike Dreger decided not to take any chances. He and his wife packed up their 2- and 4-year-olds and two dogs and spent the night with relatives in Tinley Park.
"It's a little unnerving," Dreger said, adding he wished official instructions had been clearer.
Still, instead of a worst-case scenario, "it was a bad-case scenario," he said.
The smell of crude oil hung in the air through the weekend, recounted Luisa and Juan Garcia, who could see toppled railcars from a walking trail near their backyard.
"So far, we have not had any problems with the oil that spilled," Luisa Garcia said, "but it's always a concern in the area with all the trains going by."
The Federal Railroad Administration is investigating the spill. Key issues to learn will be the speed the train was traveling, how exactly the leaks occurred and why the railcars left the tracks.
The train used CPC 1232 tank cars, which are perceived as sturdier than the infamous DOT 111 tank cars involved in a number of fatal explosions recently. However, the National Transportation Safety Board has called for upgrades to the 1232 models.
The spill occurred on the old EJ&E Railroad, acquired by CN in 2008. "We've had these trains going through for decades ... and we haven't had an incident," Plainfield Mayor Michael Collins said. Now, "it does make you more aware of them going through."
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, a Naperville Democrat whose district includes Plainfield, called the derailment a "good reminder of the need for sustainable and proper funding for our country's infrastructure for safety, efficiency and environmental protection."
You should know
An average of 112 derailments occur a year in Illinois, from minor mishaps in train yards to another near-disaster March 15 in Lake Forest when Union Pacific Railroad cars carrying molten sulfur piled up but didn't leak. The cause was a broken rail.
Between 2012 and 2016, an average of 34 rail-related hazardous materials releases a year were reported in Illinois, according to federal data. Through May 13 this year, 13 spills happened ranging from less than a gallon of propane Feb. 16 in East St. Louis to 18,000 gallons of methylated spirits Jan. 6 in East Peoria.
That's why firefighters and hazmat teams are constantly training, Riddle said, adding that despite the positive outcome, his department will dissect its response.
"It was a very serious event and we need to learn from it," he said.
Got a comment on derailments? Drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tickets are available for the annual Michael S. DeLarco Memorial Golf Outing and dinner Aug. 2, at the Schaumburg Golf Club. The event raises funds for the Michael S. DeLarco Foundation, which aids children's charities and promotes rail safety in honor of the 10-year-old who died in a rail accident. For more information, go to michaeldelarcofoundation.org.
Nothing says hip like Metra so it's no surprise the railroad is offering unlimited ride, two-day passes to the Lollapalooza music fest in Chicago next month. Passes will cost $10 for Aug. 3 and 4, and $8 for Aug. 5 and 6. Metra's also running a contest to win four free Lolla passes. For details, go to metrarail.com.