Some suburban leaders are livid about this new risk on the rails: an invite-only meeting between federal transportation officials, railroads and oil companies that could calm the nerves of big city mayors, including Rahm Emanuel. The backroom proposal: send trains carrying hazardous materials away from cities and run more of them through the suburbs.
Since the I-Team first reported risk on the rails in October, there have been numerous tanker derailments, ruptures, fires and explosions.
All involve the same older model tank cars, DOT-111's, that we learned were deemed inadequate by federal investigators more than 20 years ago.
Prompted by the latest accidents-- and bad press-- U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on January 16 convened a private meeting in Washington with rail and oil industry leaders.
The agreement they struck consider directing crude oil tankers around largely populated cities, including Chicago.
"We have seen an increase in these specific DOT-111 rail cars coming through our town," said Jim Holland, Frankfort Mayor.
Jim Holland is the mayor of south suburban Frankfort, population: 18,000.
"The tracks go through the middle of town and we have literally hundreds of families that live near these tracks. Since when are the lives of residents in Frankfort worth less than the lives of residents in Chicago," said Mayor Holland.
In this letter obtained by the I-Team, Secretary Foxx lays out other considerations agreed to during the meeting:
--Place speed limits on trains carrying crude oil through populated areas. --Toughen inspections of more volatile crude oil from the Bakken region. --Improve emergency responder training.
The suburban Chicago mayors who have teamed up on a crusade against dangerous material shipments tell the I-Team they are furious that the feds cut them out of the meeting.
"We cannot afford to just turn these decisions over to some back room deals where we know what kind of power that industry can wield," said Fred Millar, rail safety consultant.
Fred Millar is a rail safety consultant from the Washington, D.C. area.
"Communities want to know what is coming through their cities. They want to know not only in case there is an incident on the train, what is on the train that might blow up next," said Millar.
This recent report shows that more crude oil was spilled in U.S. rail accidents last year than was spilled in the nearly 40 previous years combined.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants the federal government to charge a national hazardous freight fee. Twenty-five percent of all rail cargo travels through Chicago.
"I'm proposing a hazardous material fee specifically to then invest in both safety, first responders, and a reinsurance to help communities get back on the ground, God forbid something happens," said Mayor Emanuel, on January 28.
Despite an NTSB recommendation decades ago to shore up DOT-111 tank cars, the government has never required it.
"We have very pitiful federal oversight these days. I mean our federal regulatory agencies have been defunded, defanged and demoralized for so long," said Millar.
"The answer for this issue is to retrofit the railcars, it is not an answer to move the railcars from Chicago to the suburbs," said Millar.
The rail and oil industries have until Friday to give the Department of Transportation specific details about steps they plan to take to improve the safety of moving crude oil by freight train.
U.S. Department of Transportation statement in response to Mayor Rahm Emanuel's proposal to impose a fee for hazardous materials transported by rail:
"Safety is DOT's top priority and we welcome proposals being brought forward to improve rail safety and ensure the safe transport of crude oil. We are committed to this issue and want to continue the dialogue with all stakeholders. Already, we have gained commitments from the rail and petroleum industries to take immediate steps to improve the safe transport of crude. There is not one action that will solve this issue and we need to make sure the focus of our wide-ranging approach is on prevention, mitigation, emergency response and stakeholder outreach."
Freight Railroads Join Administration in Push for Enhanced Safety of Rail Transport of Energy Products
NTSB calls for tougher standards on trains carrying crude oil
HAZMAT Transport Risk Factors
NTSB Safety Recommendation to PHMSA
NTSB Safety Recommendation to FRA
TRAC Letter to USDOT Secretary FOXX