CHICAGO (WLS) -- The ABC7 I-Team investigated hazardous oil trains that speed through Chicago and the suburbs every day. Would firefighters be able to keep you safe if one of them exploded?
The answer is probably not. Emergency officials testified before Congress they are not prepared to handle a large-scale crude oil disaster on the rails, and we've determined that the threat from this "volatile express" in Chicago and dozens of suburbs grows daily as more and more trains are transporting dangerous materials through our neighborhoods.
"If we have tank cars with the potential to explode, we don't have an hour," said Chief Jim Arie, Barrington Fire Dept.
Chief Arie says if a train carrying crude oil derails and catches fire, his department cannot handle it alone.
"The potential for an incident is great here. The foam we would need for a crude oil incident is going to come from a number of places throughout the area," Arie said.
The burden of battling a big oil fire falls on local first responders, a feat that is too large for any one department.
"We're seeing a lot more trains, longer trains," Arie said. "That's not going to go away, it's only going to be a larger issue."
The deadly crude oil derailment in Quebec last year overwhelmed the local fire department and others that responded. Emergency crews needed massive amounts of foam to contain the fire. The i-team has learned it took several hours for 8,000
gallons of foam to be transported from a Canadian refinery to the accident site. Most metro Chicago departments told us they only store small amounts of foam product in their firehouses.
The Greater Round Lake Fire Department is an exception. This rig carries 405 gallons of firefighting foam. Originally used at a naval station in Maryland, Round Lake received it as part of a federal government's surplus program.
"We're fortunate to have the resource. It gives us a leg up but it doesn't mean this rig all by itself is going to be able to mitigate the possible situation we're talking about," said Doug Lawson, Greater Round Lake Fire Protection Dist.
A derailment he says would immediately require help from surrounding departments.
"The key will be determining how big the problem is and calling for the right amount of help," Lawson said.
Local refineries and chemical companies have foam stockpiles that could be called in to help. Chicago says it has thousands of gallons of foam at the ready.
Emergency officials tell the I-Team both Midway and O'Hare have large foam supplies, plus a large tank stored just outside the city. Railroads also keep foam at various locations along the line - but marshaling all of it takes coordination.
"We have resources available in the Chicago area, we also have a cash of materials that could be used in an incident that is kept in our yard in Bensenville," said Andy Cummings, a spokesperson for the Canadian Pacific Railway.
As part of a voluntary agreement with the Department of Transportation, railroad companies are contributing $5 million to train first responders on how to handle oil tanker accidents. The training began in July.
"Firefighters are able to get hands-on experience with tank cars and with the use of foam," Cummings said.
A few weeks ago, the government put out a reference guide to help firefighters responding to a crude oil incident. It bluntly admits most departments "will not have the available resources, capabilities, or trained personnel to safely and effectively extinguish a fire..."
Several railways - including Canadian Pacific - recently started charging a per-car fee for all shipments of crude oil moving in older, more vulnerable tank cars.
"We believe that a safer tank car is the No. 1 step that could be taken to make crude oil transport by rail safer," Cummings said.
And Chicago is especially susceptible to the Volatile Express - a quarter of all rail cargo in the U.S. moves through this area.
Beginning last August, the I-Team asked Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office to provide a city official who could discuss this important public safety matter. They refused. An email they provided touted the city's preparedness for "all events and issues" and restated the mayor's desire for safer railroad tankers.
Full statement from City of Chicago Office of Emergency Management & Communications:
"Keeping Chicago safe is our number one priority. Chicago is the largest freight rail hub in the country, and each day around 500 freight trains travel through the city, some carrying oil and other flammable materials. We have emergency operations plans in place to address all conceivable events and issues, and we will take the necessary steps - as appropriate regarding the material involved - to respond and mitigate the impact of any incident in order to ensure the safety of our residents and communities. While we are prepared to respond to any incident, the Mayor has been clear that he would like more timely notification from railroads about the types and amounts of materials traveling through our communities; quicker transitions to safer rail cars; speed limits for trains carrying large volumes of hazardous materials; and additional funding to support safer infrastructure, advanced safety technology and emergency response training and equipment."
- OEMC Executive Director, Gary Schenkel
Volatile Express: Is the Chicago area prepared for a crude oil disaster?
ABC7 I-Team Investigation