Oil trains passing through Chicago often go unnoticed by residents. (Photo by Lloyd DeGrane for Midwest Energy News)

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Oil trains passing through Chicago often go unnoticed by residents. (Photo by Lloyd DeGrane for Midwest Energy News)
Oil trains passing through Chicago often go unnoticed by residents. (Photo by Lloyd DeGrane for Midwest Energy News)

More trains carrying volatile crude oil pass through Chicago than anywhere else in the country, as reported by the Chicago Tribune last week.

And the oil trains are passing through and sitting idle for hours in the same low-income, largely black and Latino Chicago neighborhoods that have been at the center of high-profile environmental justice struggles, including Pilsen and Little Village, where residents fought to shut down the city’s two coal-fired power plants.

Throughout March, Midwest Energy News documented numerous oil trains passing through Chicago and the suburbs, and also found through interviews that many residents alongside the tracks have no idea about the dire risk they would face if there were an oil train accident.

Atop the 16th Street viaduct in the immigrant neighborhood of Pilsen, almost every day one can find a train of sleek black tanker cars sitting idle or chugging through.

On a one-mile stretch of 16th Street directly below these tracks, there are three elementary schools, a senior citizens’ housing complex, a bridal store, a gym, upscale lofts in rehabbed factories and sagging small homes that have been in families for generations.

From Pilsen the tracks head northeast, skirting the southern edge of downtown. They come from the southwest, through the dense residential neighborhood of Little Village, and past the nation’s largest jail, housing about 9,000 inmates.

The evacuation zone for an oil train explosion is half a mile on either side.

Along with Pilsen and Little Village, Midwest Energy News found oil trains crossing the Dan Ryan Expressway above heavy traffic, traveling through poor African American neighborhoods on the South Side, and snaking not far from stately townhouses near Chicago’s convention center.

A placard with number 1267 indicates a train hauling crude oil. (Associated Press)
A placard with number 1267 indicates a train hauling crude oil. (Associated Press)

Crude oil is designated by a red placard with a flame and the number “1267.” There is no way for residents to know for sure where the oil came from.

But shipments of crude oil by rail have increased exponentially with the boom in extraction from the Bakken shale in North Dakota. And the Bakken oil is known to be particularly flammable and explosive, as seen in the disaster in Lac-Megantic, Quebec in July 2013 and more recently in West Virginia and Galena, Illinois, 160 miles from Chicago.

“In Lac-Megantic the whole town got destroyed, there were rivers of fiery oil flowing in the sewers,” said Lora Chamberlain, a physician and environmental activist helping to spearhead a small but growing coalition of Chicagoans concerned about oil trains. “If something like that happened in Little Village or Pilsen it would be devastating. Hundreds of people could be killed. These fires are blowouts, the firemen can’t even get near them.”

Growing alarm

The Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO), which was a leader of the campaign around the coal plants, is beginning to look at oil trains. And the Southeast Environmental Task Force, a leader in the fight against petcoke storage, has also been talking about oil trains at their meetings.

Sue Sadlowski Garza — who was elected to City Council in April 7 run-off elections, unseating a long-time incumbent — held a press conference during the campaign at the site of a proposed new rail spur, voicing fears that it would mean oil trains through a Southeast Side residential neighborhood.

The grassroots coalition that formed this winter is holding meetings and conference calls about every two weeks and working on a formal list of demands for the industry and government regulators.

Chicago officials, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, have said little publicly about oil trains. Alderman Ricardo Munoz, who represents Little Village in City Council, said he had not heard about the issue and that it had not been discussed in City Council. Pilsen Alderman Danny Solis did not respond to a request for comment.

In response to questions, a spokesperson for Emanuel said the mayor “encourages the public and private sectors to make rail safety a priority.”

“A potential derailment would be unthinkable if it happened in a neighborhood like Pilsen,” added Emanuel spokesperson Shannon Breymaier. “There is no silver bullet to this problem, but if we work together and share responsibility, we will keep our cities and residents safe.”

Top officials of two western Chicago suburbs, Aurora and Barrington, have been sounding the alarm about oil trains, demanding federal officials more aggressively mandate safeguards.

Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner has said he sees four to seven oil trains with 100 or more cars passing through each day. Especially in the suburbs where there are many at-grade crossings, leaders are also worried about the increased delays caused by long oil trains – when traffic is blocked and emergency vehicles can’t get through.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois has pressed the issue with the industry and federal regulators. Spokesperson Christina Mulka said that last summer, Durbin convened a meeting with Chicago-area mayors, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Surface Transportation Board about the issue.

And in late March, Durbin met with BNSF’s executive chairman to talk about the Galena accident and their oil train operations. Durbin has also been pushing for tougher safety standards and federal investments in oil train safety, including more inspectors and infrastructure upgrades.

Railroads are regulated at the federal level and largely not subject to local, county or state oversight. City leaders and advocates have long bemoaned the municipal lack of control over trains blocking streets or causing diesel pollution.

The risk of oil train explosions makes the stakes higher.

“The question is whether municipalities can regulate rail,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “Clearly municipalities have longstanding constitutional authority to protect public health and well-being. So we have a push and pull between the freight industry and municipalities. Everybody is better off if industry gets control of this problem and puts safer cars on the rails as soon as possible.”

A railroad crossroads

On March 31, the Energy Information Administration for the first time released data showing the volume and direction of crude oil by rail. The data show how rail shipments of crude oil have grown exponentially, from 55,000 barrels per day in 2010 to more than 1 million barrels per day last year.

The great majority of the oil shipped by rail is from the Bakken. In 2010 through 2012, most oil by rail was headed to Gulf Coast refineries. In the past two years the trajectory shifted to East Coast refineries, which often means passing through Chicago.

Under a May 2014 emergency order sparked by oil train accidents, railroads have to notify state emergency management officials of oil shipments. Using this data obtained from state agencies, McClatchy news service found that up to 49 trains with a million or more gallons of crude oil pass through Cook County, which includes Chicago, every week.

The Chicago Tribune also reported last summer about 40 oil trains going through Chicago each week. The Tribune recently obtained redacted records confirming this estimate and indicating the oil train routes.

American Association of Railroads spokesman Ed Greenberg said that the group does not track Bakken oil specifically, but total carloads of oil shipped nationwide has jumped from 9,500 in 2008 to 493,126 last year. Greenberg noted that rail traffic in general has increased, and crude oil makes up just 1.6 percent of total railroad shipments.

Chicago is a major rail hub, the only spot where the seven major railroads that serve the west and east parts of the country converge.

Maps on the websites of BNSF and CSX railroads show crude oil moving from the Bakken and potentially also the Canadian tar sands through the Chicago area. A map compiled by the environmental group Forest Ethics using industry data from magazines and volunteer observations shows oil train routes and the evacuation zones. The map includes the routes where Midwest Energy News observed oil trains in the past month.

Seeking transparency

Chicago activists have called for more information from the railroads and state regulators about when and where oil trains are passing through the city.

Illinois Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Patti Thompson said that after last year’s order, the railroads provided the agency routes and weekly average volumes of oil shipments. She said that under the state’s Freedom of Information Act law, the agency decided they could release the volumes but not the exact routes. She noted that the railroads did not provide any information on the schedule of shipments or the exact volumes — only averages. And trains carrying less than a million gallons of oil are exempt from the requirement altogether.

“It’s not totally a secret where these trains go, but on the other hand there are security concerns,” Thompson said.

CSX spokesperson Gail Lobin said that, “For security reasons we don’t disclose specific routes to the public. State management offices have that information and choose on a state-by-state basis how to disclose that information.”

BNSF and Canadian Pacific did not respond to requests for comment.

Chamberlain doesn’t buy the idea that oil train information must be guarded for security reasons.

“If the terrorists wanted to blow up a ‘bomb train’” – as critics often call oil trains – “they could just sit there and wait for one,” she said.

Indeed, in Pilsen oil trains are stopped on the tracks for hours night and day, and anyone can easily walk up a ramp right to them.

“There’s no real reason the state should keep it a secret,” Chamberlain continued. “We have a right to know what’s coming through our neighborhoods.”

Safety measures

Thompson said that the information provided by rail companies has helped Illinois bolster its preparedness efforts.

The state emergency management agency passes that information on to local emergency officials, and disburses federal funding to help them prepare. Last year the state distributed $435,000 in federal money to help local agencies prepare for oil train emergencies, she said, and a similar amount will be given out this year. She said the state has also spent $8,270 hosting specialized trainings for about 600 firefighters statewide on handling Bakken oil emergencies.

An advisory council involving the emergency agency, the Illinois Commerce Commission, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and others has also been meeting to talk about oil trains.

“Before the U.S. Department of Transportation order we had no information at all, we were totally in the dark as far as how many of these shipments went through,” Thompson said. “Now we have ideas about the average number of shipments per week that are passing through particular counties, we know the general corridors, that’s helping us to focus our attention on those areas.”

In February, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin introduced a bill that would bolster emergency response preparedness for oil train accidents. The rail industry says it has also been working hard to help government agencies prepare. Lobin said that CSX has developed a mobile app to help local officials prepare and respond to oil train accidents.

“Many states have access to nearly real-time data regarding hazardous materials moving on CSX trains, and community first responders can request density studies that show the volumes of hazardous materials that move through their areas,” said Lobin.

CSX has launched a version of its “Safety Train” program related to oil trains, with visits to 18 cities and towns, including an August program for Chicago area fire departments. Greenberg said the AAR also trains local officials in emergency response, including a course at their specialized facility in Colorado.

Confusion and complacency

Many people living along the tracks in Pilsen expressed little concern about the trains.

The manager at a large homeless shelter near the tracks said no one had ever mentioned it. Business owners near the tracks said they did not know about oil trains. In northwest Indiana just outside Chicago, a man who grew up and still lives in a house just feet from tracks plied by oil trains said it doesn’t worry him one bit.

A block from the tracks in Pilsen is John Zientek’s shop, which has been selling model trains for more than 25 years. Musty stacks of small rail cars and accessories pack the top floor, and the basement is filled with a sprawling model train set.

“I know they come through here and I know they’re dangerous,” said Zientek about oil trains. But he’s not personally worried about the increase in Bakken crude by rail, and he mentions that chlorine and other chemicals long carried by tank cars could technically be considered more dangerous than crude oil.

Zientek has numerous black ethanol tank car models in the shop, but no crude oil cars. To the untrained eye the black tankers look almost identical, but he can point out distinguishing features.

He figures demand will increase for model crude oil cars. “It’s still kind of new yet, but if the railroads keep building them modelers will buy them,” he said. “Modelers build what they see running on the tracks.”

While train experts can easily distinguish a crude oil car, residents who are watching the tracks may be confused. Tanker cars also carry other products including ethanol, molten sulfur, anhydrous ammonia, and numerous other compounds. The red “1267” placard is the best way to identify crude oil cars. The color of placards indicates whether they are flammable, radioactive, poisonous, corrosive or otherwise hazardous, and numbers typically indicate the material inside.

Ultimately the chance that any given oil train chugging through Chicago will derail or explode is small. And with much heavy industry, truck and air traffic, there are plenty of other potential disasters to worry about and plan for.

But with the boom in Bakken oil shipments, watchdogs say that railroad companies and government agencies should make information available and take all measures possible to avoid a catastrophe.

“Because the Bakken oil producers are so much more important than the rest of us in this country, they get to do what they want,” said Chamberlain sarcastically. “We want the federal government to stand up for our communities and get these trains out of here.”

The Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and Environmental Law and Policy Center are members of RE-AMP, which publishes Midwest Energy News.

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Kari Lydersen

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.

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