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Railroad gets OK to buy city land despite Englewood residents’ fears

A Norfolk Southern tra63rd State. |  Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

A Norfolk Southern train at 63rd and State. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 27, 2013 6:13AM

Norfolk Southern Railway got the go-ahead Monday to purchase 105 city-owned lots for $1.1 million to pave the way for a massive expansion of its intermodal rail yard — over the objections of Englewood residents concerned about increased air pollution.

The City Council’s Committee on Housing and Real Estate approved Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to sell the lots to Norfolk Southern after the railroad promised to contribute $3 million toward transportation improvements, thousands more to area schools and donate unused rail spurs that the city hopes to convert into an elevated bike trail akin to the Bloomingdale Trail.

The promises were not enough to satisfy residents of an impoverished neighborhood already hard hit by asthma and lead poisoning.

Englewood residents have demanded a series of concessions — from diesel particulate filters installed on trucks, locomotives, freight-handling and construction equipment to traffic management to minimize truck idling on surrounding roadways.

The residents have further demanded that indoor air filters be installed at schools, day care centers and other high-occupancy neighborhood buildings; that area children be tested for lead contamination; that air quality be monitored, and that “buffers” in the form of walls, trees or green space be installed to mitigate the negative impact.

“This promises to haunt this chamber with class-action suits. There are personal injury lawyers out there. Neighbors of mine are talking about the possibilities,” the Rev. John Ellis of Sustainable Englewood Initiatives warned aldermen before the final vote.

“Practically everyone I know . . . has asthma or cardiopulmonary disease. It is the most highly contaminated census area in the country. Something like 30 percent of the children are overexposed to lead. . . . That means retarded development, retarded educational opportunities, mental retardation, aggression — both as adults and as children.”

John Paul Jones, president of Sustainable Englewood Initiatives, noted that “public health concerns are not even being dealt with” in the ordinance approved Monday or in the $3 million neighborhood improvement fund.

“The city of Chicago has to back up these neighborhoods when it comes to public health,” he said.

Local Ald. Willie Cochran (20th) argued that the 84-acre expansion of a center where rail containers are transferred to and from trucks would strengthen Chicago’s position as a rail and freight hub.

“These trucking companies can drop off their merchandise . . . and those locations can now transfer those products to the consumer at a much faster rate,” he said. “We’re looking at products moving across the country quicker. We’re looking at intermodal yards being developed. We’re looking at facilities being built, jobs being created and taxes being generated.”

What about concerns that the project will increase air pollution?

“Ignoring the health concerns is not something I am supportive of. [But] health concerns have to be put in the right perspective,” Cochran said. “This one project is not one that should be held up because we have a current problem with health concerns. We should continue our work in that area.”

Norfolk Southern spokesman Herbert Smith emphasized that the $285 million project would be phased in over a period of years.

The first phase will involve making the yard more efficient by closing off 58th Street and putting in a Y-connection that will allow the railroad to access the western portion of an intermodal facility that now functions as two separate yards.

“There’s more idling associated with that. It’s less efficient for us. We’ll have immediate access by closing off 58th Street and putting in this new Y-connection,” Smith said. “Later phases will include truck-trailer parking and, eventually, the extension of that from our existing facility southward.”

“There’s substantial benefit to the city of Chicago for this project in logistics savings to area shippers as well as redevelopment of an area that, over the years, has been blighted with a lot of vacant land as well as derelict property,” Smith said.

The existing Norfolk Southern rail yard is bounded by 47th, Wallace, Garfield and Stewart.

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