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Mayor backs fee for rail cars carrying hazardous materials

Mayor Rahm Emanuel

Mayor Rahm Emanuel

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Updated: February 17, 2014 8:41AM

Noting that 30 percent of the nation’s rail cargo passes through Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday threw his formidable support behind a plan to slap a “hazardous materials transportation fee” on tank cars stored in or moving through the city.

Emanuel said he met with City Council Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th) last week to discuss the unspecified fee that Burke proposed at Wednesday’s City Council meeting.

They agreed that recent railcar disasters in North Dakota and Canada were a wake-up call to Chicago.

“With what’s going on throughout the United States in the sense of this energy revolution, we’re going to see more, not less” of these incidents, Emanuel said.

“This natural gas doesn’t just explode. It stays on fire. . . . If there are, God forbid, any accidents, we . . . have to make sure that our police and fire and first-responders have the training and equipment to handle this hazardous material. Should there be a way to finance all of this and make sure we have the type of rail upgrades to prevent these types of accidents?”

The ordinance co-sponsored by Burke and Southwest Side Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th) states: “No person may receive, deliver, transfer, store, handle or otherwise transport a railroad tank car containing hazardous material within Chicago unless it has paid to the city a hazardous material transportation fee.”

The fee would be determined by Chicago’s police superintendent, fire commissioner, health commissioner and 911 center chief “based on the fair approximation of the tank car’s physical presence with the city.” The money would be used for “enforcement, planning and emergency response.”

Burke pointed to a recent chemical spill in West Virginia as evidence of the disaster that could potentially unfold in Chicago.

“People can’t drink their water. People can’t take a shower. They can’t fix their food. Where is the federal government that’s supposed to be regulating these kinds of accidents?” Burke said.

“Where I live, I can reach out and touch the railroad tracks. Can you imagine a spill of this magnitude taking place in a dense, highly-populated area? No one could calculate how many people would be killed. [There were] 47 people killed up in Canada in a very sparsely settled town. What if it happens here in the middle of Chicago. Somebody needs to wake up.”

To get the ball rolling, the City Council ordered Corporation Counsel Stephen Patton to formally petition the U.S. Department of Transportation to mandate the retrofit of DOT-111 tank cars with a steel shell too thin to resist punctures. Those cars make up an estimated 69 percent of the nation’s tank car fleet.

Emanuel’s warning about the “energy revolution” is a reference to the surge in crude oil being hauled by the nation’s largest railroads.

It’s expected to nearly double — from 234,000 carloads of crude in 2011 to 400,000 this year because of a surge in oil production in Canada and the western United States, according to the Association of American Railroads.

“Every city is slowly but surely starting to see what’s going on and we’ll be the first to actually start to respond as well as put in place what we need to . . . make sure we’re able to handle something that’s happening literally in our backyard,” Emanuel said.


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