Excerpts from a Daily Herald article:

A continued spike in oil trains and recent high-profile explosions and pollution spills across the United States have suburban fire departments playing defense.

[Firefighters] interviewed by the Daily Herald for this series of reports on railway hazardous materials releases said they train continually and have mutual aid agreements for worst-case scenarios. But all the forethought in the world could be trumped by issues beyond their control, authorities warn.

It’s more than theoretical in places like Glen Ellyn, where a 1976 derailment spilled ammonia, leading to a massive evacuation and 14 injuries.

And fuel isn’t the only hazardous material emergency firefighters face, records show. The Daily Herald reviewed 15½ years of hazmat reports involving trains and found 345 occurrences in the metropolitan region. The types of chemicals and fuels firefighters could battle on any given day include toxins that pose a health threat with significant exposure such as hydrochloric acid, ammonia or the solvent xylene, and highly flammable liquids such as ethanol or Bakken crude oil.

As one of Illinois’ largest cities, Aurora has about 195 firefighters. There are about 30 hazmat specialists on hand.

Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis noted that the railroad annually trains about 2,500 local, state and federal first-responders on ways to minimize the impact of a potential derailment. “In 2014, Union Pacific has trained 314 emergency responders on crude oil safety.”

BNSF spokeswoman Roxanne Butler said the railroad trained 8,619 first-responders this year. “We’ll go to any fire department along our railroad and host a hands-on training,” she said.

The Federal Railroad Administration proposes phasing out older DOT-111s that transport ethanol and crude oil within two years. But the policy gives the industry an out, firefighters say, by limiting the restrictions to trains with 20 or more high-hazard flammable cars.

“The (BNSF) railroad goes through almost all of our central business district … if we had a train that was transporting Bakken oil and we had an accident and spill and a few of the containers caught fire — it would have a significant long-term impact on the community,” Lisle-Woodridge’s Krestan said.

The American Association of Railroads said its members support modernized, more durable tank cars.

With busy Union Pacific tracks bisecting his community, Glen Ellyn Volunteer Fire Company Chief Jim Bodony knows trains carrying hazmat will pass through town frequently. What he balks at are trains potentially carrying ethanol or crude oil idling on tracks for hours on end.

His fears aren’t unprecedented. Before dawn on May 16, 1976, a Chicago and North Western Railway (now UP) train derailed after hitting another freight train on a curve just west of Glen Ellyn, causing a carload of ammonia to gush out, injuring 14 people. Parts of Glen Ellyn and Glendale Heights were evacuated for hours, and the chemical went into the sewers, polluting Lake Ellyn and killing fish.

If there’s a serious release from a tank car, the faster firefighters know what substances are or could be involved, the better, Barrington Fire Chief Jim Arie said. Existing policies — where a paper manifest is handed over to first-responders — just aren’t pragmatic, he thinks. He wants real-time electronic access from the railroads as to what chemicals are on the train. So far, that hasn’t materialized.

CN’s Waldron said the railroad’s police communications center can email or fax a train manifest to first-responders when requested during an emergency.

CN and other railroads are offering a mobile app for emergency response officials that “provides immediate access to accurate, near-real-time information about railcars carrying hazardous materials on a train,” Waldron said.

The BNSF’s Butler said the railroad has an emergency number for firefighters to call and get critical information.

thanks Dan

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