Richard Wronski | Chicago Tribune
Warning that the frequent railroad trains loaded with crude oil passing through the Chicago area are a “serious risk to public safety,” the City Council is calling for tighter restrictions on the shipments than federal officials proposed in July.
Council members on Tuesday also asked that the city and other municipalities be given the authority to impose a hazardous material transportation fee on shippers — money that would help cover the cost of training firefighters and supplying the equipment and foam to battle a tank car derailment and fire.
The action puts Chicago in the forefront of communities across the nation demanding stricter controls on the trains that have become rolling pipelines, moving volatile crude oil each day from the Bakken fields in North Dakota and Montana.
“Hopefully, our leaders in Washington will act promptly to protect millions of people in the Chicago area before, not after, a disaster strikes,” said Ald. Edward Burke, 14th, chairman of the Finance Committee and one of the forces behind the action taken Tuesday.
A joint City Council finance and transportation committee approved a resolution outlining a number of recommendations for the U.S. Transportation Department, which is writing new rules on the shipments. The full City Council is expected to approve the resolution Wednesday, Burke said.
The key recommendation would require the railroads to pay a fee, the amount so far unspecified, for each tank car full of crude oil that passes through the city.
The Tribune reported in May that few Chicago-area fire departments have enough firefighting foam and equipment to respond effectively to the kind of roaring infernos that result from derailments of trains carrying highly flammable liquids like crude oil and ethanol.
As many as 40 such trains come through Chicago and suburbs each week, the newspaper reported, based on a review of railroad records.
“The proceeds of such a fee would help ensure that our firefighters and police officers who would answer the call for help have the necessary equipment and proper training to respond to a catastrophic railroad accident,” said Burke, citing the Tribune’s coverage.
Such a fee was proposed in January by Mayor Rahm Emanuel before a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington.
Burke said he believes the city has the authority to act on its own to impose a hazardous materials fee, even without asking for authority from the federal government, but will await a response from the U.S.
Acknowledging the historic power of the railroad industry, Burke pointed out that the city forced the railroads at the beginning of the 20th Century to eliminate at-grade crossings after scores of pedestrians were killed by trains.
The Association of American Railroads, which represents the industry, said it would withhold comment on the city’s resolution until it could be studied.
The city’s action comes in response to the July 2013 runaway train carrying crude oil that derailed in Lac Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and destroying more than 100 homes and businesses.
Several other fiery derailments have occurred elsewhere. On June 19, 2009, a Canadian National freight train hauling 75 tank cars loaded with ethanol derailed and erupted into a massive fireball in Cherry Valley, near Rockford. One woman was killed and hundreds were evacuated.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in July proposed new rules on operating so-called “high-hazard flammable trains” carrying 20 or more tank cars.
A key proposal would phase out thousands of older DOT-111 tank cars used for the shipment of highly flammable liquids within two years unless the cars are retrofitted to comply with new safety standards.
The National Transportation Safety Board has warned that the design of the DOT-111 cars makes them “susceptible to damage and catastrophic loss of hazardous material during the derailment.”
The DOT-111s comprise approximately 69 percent of the nation’s tank car fleet. More than 100,000 DOT-111s are in use transporting oil, ethanol and other flammable fuels, according to the Railway Supply Institute.
The Chicago resolution urges tighter rules on so-called “high-hazard flammable trains” than Foxx has proposed. The city wants the federal restrictions imposed on trains carrying as few as 15 tank cars containing flammable liquids, instead of 20. The city also wants a 35-mph speed limit on tank car trains, instead of 40 mph.
The Council action was supported by several aldermen, including Matthew O’Shea, 19th; Anthony Beale, 9th, Willie Cochran, 20th, Leslie Hairston, 5th, and Emma Mitts, 37th.
O’Shea said tracks owned by CXS Transportation pass through his ward and run as close as 50 feet from schools, parks and homes.
He called for tougher preventative action, and doubted whether first responders, no matter how well-trained and equipped, could act quickly enough to prevent a tragedy in the event of a fiery derailment.
“When there’s a collision, a derailment, a fireball, a spill, how quick is a crew that’s prepared to deal with this going to get there?” O’Shea said. “I don’t want to find out the hard way.”