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Pilsen activists worry ‘bomb trains’ are traveling through neighborhood

Updated: July 10, 2014 11:23PM

Activists concerned that “bomb trains” carrying highly volatile crude oil could be travelling through densely populated Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods are demanding that government officials release the routes of such trains — as well as all evacuation plans in the event of an explosion.

A candlelight vigil was held Thursday night at the BNSF terminal at 16th Street and Western Ave. in Pilsen to spotlight potential “bomb train” concerns. “People are living within a blast zone and they don’t even know it,” said Debra Michaud, an organizer of Thursday’s protest and Tar Sands Free Midwest.

Protestors say black tank cars with the “Hazard 1267” placard indicating the presence of flammable petroleum have been observed near that terminal.

The protest is among those planned from California to New York during an “Oil By Rail Week of Action” tied to the one-year anniversary of the July 6, 2013 explosion of a runaway freight train carrying volatile Bakken oil in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. The blast decimated more than 30 downtown buildings in the Canadian town and killed 47.

“We saw 47 people killed in Lac-Megantic,’’ Michaud said. “A bomb train explosion in Pilsen or Little Village would be many times that.’’

Protestors are demanding that Gov. Pat Quinn and Mayor Rahm Emanuel release the route of any Illinois or Chicago “bomb trains’’ the evacuation and emergency plans devised for their potential explosion or derailment, and any “blast zones” that could be evacuated in the event of an incident, Michaud said.

“We are very concerned that bomb trains are coming through our communities in Chicago and we want answers from public officials,’’ Michaud said.

Michaud conceded she did not know for sure whether trains rolling through the BNSF’s 16th Street and Western Avenue terminal contained the kind of unusually volatile oil from the booming fields of Bakken, North Dakota, that exploded in downtown Lac-Megantic.

“Let’s say it’s regular crude. That’s bad enough. That’s still explosive,’’ Michaud said. “If it’s Bakken, it’s even worse.’’

Earlier this year, said Patti Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Department of Transportation, ordered rail lines to tell state emergency authorities the shipment rates and routes of any Bakken crude they carry through each state.

As a result, IEMA now knows that eight rail lines carry Bakken crude through Illinois, Thompson said. They are BNSF, Norfolk-Southern, Alton & Southern, CN, CSX, Indiana Harbor Belt, Union Pacific and Canadian Pacific.

The route map provided by BNSF indicated the railroad carries Bakken crude through Cook County, but it was not detailed enough to determine if that route went through Pilsen or Little Village, Thompson said.

And, although other railroad maps were more specific, IEMA thus far has not released them to reporters, even under the Freedom of Information Act requests, Thompson said. Public release of specific Bakken routes could make them “more vulnerable to terrorism or some other type of sabatoge,’’ Thompson said.

The state emergency agency has been working with local emergency planning commissions on emergency response plans in the event of a Bakken incident, Thompson said. That work so far has revealed that local emergency responders need more suppressive spray foam and special fire hoses and nozzles to combat any Bakken explosion, Thompson said.

A spokeswoman for the Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications did not provide any specifics about any plans to protect Pilsen or Little Village in the event of a Bakken spill or explosion. However, she issued a statement by email saying that “we have emergency operation 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.’’


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