Infrastructure & Environment

Chicago Mayor Calls for National Fee to Respond to Train Spills

As the U.S. enters an energy boom and rail remains the chief way of transporting it, cities need to get behind national efforts to improve safety, oversight and emergency response, Rahm Emanuel says.
by | January 23, 2014
In this photo released by the Alabama Emergency Management Agency on a tanker train carrying crude oil burns after derailing in western Alabama outside Aliceville, Ala., Nov. 8, 2013. Associated Press Photo/Alabama Emergency Management Agency

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is proposing a national freight fee for hazardous materials to improve rail safety and help cities respond to the kind of disasters that destroyed a small Canadian town last year.

As rail transportation surges to meet the demands of an oil and gas boom underway in the U.S., cities need to take the lead on demanding better oversight, better safety and robust ways of responding to accidents, Emanuel said Thursday during the winter gathering of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He pointed to the derailment of crude oil tankers in Alabama last year and incidents in North Dakota to illustrate the problem.  He compared an explosion last year in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic that leveled 30 downtown buildings and killed more than 40 people to Dresden after allied bombing raids in 1945.

The federal government would impose the fee on companies that extract crude oil and “the industrial consumers of it,” according Emanuel’s office. The mayor said the fee would fund new investments in rail safety and infrastructure, first responders in the locations of disasters and rebuilding efforts. If not through a national effort, the burden will fall mostly on individual cities, Emanuel said.

“You will end up having to do this because it’s going to be something we haven’t seen in this country in a long time,” he said. “We are literally in the early stages…of an ever increasing amount of this material coming into our cities.”

But the fee, which would take Congressional authorization, was couched within a broader call of improvements that included building safer rail cars, safer railroads and giving local officials more information about the freight entering their cities.

“None of us know what’s coming through our cities,” Emanuel said. “It may be sitting there for days and we may not know.”

The same day Emanuel proposed the fee, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and the Transportation Safety Board of Canada released a joint statement calling for better route planning that avoids more densely populated areas. The organizations also recommended more robust efforts to correctly classify hazardous materials before they’re shipped and oversight to ensure companies have plans for dealing with disasters.

Crude oil shipments by rail have jumped more than 400 percent since 2005, according to the U.S. safety board.

It’s not just big-city mayors who should be worried, said Mayor Butch Brown of Natchez, Miss. Thousands of cars filled with crude oil make their way from Canada each year in Natchez, where they’re transferred to barges headed down the Mississippi River, Brown said.

“It’s not just critical to the metropolitan areas; it’s very critical to the smaller areas that have fewer resources to deal with these issues than larger metropolitan areas do,” he said.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who served as mayor of Charlotte before his nomination in 2013, said he welcomes all ideas for dealing with the growing problem, but there’s no “magic bullet” and broader action is needed on everything from enforcement to prevention and emergency response.

“We’ve got some work to do convincing our leaders in Congress to give us the resources we need to do inspections in a much more robust way and also make sure we have the enforcement mechanisms,” he said.

A spokeswoman in Emanuel’s office said he’ll be “working with national leaders to find the right way to implement” a more “comprehensive set of safety and infrastructure investments,” of which his proposal is one piece.

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