Sidney train leak incident part of a growing and concerning national problem

The latest train incident causing a spill of petroleum products into an Illinois waterway happened in the small village of Sidney. Last Saturday, Sidney residents smelled diesel fuel and then saw it in the creek that drains into the Salt Fork of the Vermilion River in eastern Champaign County. The source was a Union Pacific train that leaked fuel as it passed through the area.

Fuel has passed the last boom on the creek that flows through Sidney before emptying into the Salt Fork.

Fuel has passed the last boom (in background) on the creek that flows through Sidney before emptying into the Salt Fork.

Cleanup is reportedly expected to take several weeks and may be complicated by the fact that the fuel spilled onto soil before reaching water. In addition, initial efforts by Environmental Restoration, LLC to contain the spill using booms placed in the creek resulted in inadequate containment, as the picture to the right shows. Residents are frustrated the cleanup didn’t happen more quickly and effectively. They continue to smell an odor and are unable to use and enjoy the creek. Fortunately there have been no reports of dead fish, but impacts on aquatic life may yet appear.

Prairie Rivers Network is concerned about the number of recent pollution events involving trains passing through Illinois. In March 2015, a BNSF oil train derailed near the Galena and Mississippi rivers in the northwest corner of the state. A barrier was constructed to keep rising river water away from oil-contaminated wetlands.  In 2009, a Canadian National train carrying ethanol derailed and was blamed for a subsequent fish kill in the Rock River.

In the case of Sidney, it appears the fuel came from the locomotive itself. But around the country, the media is reporting a concerning rise in train incidents involving fuel transport. A Washington Post article claimed that U.S. officials say train incidents involving oil tankers are becoming more common. The article also stated that there are shortcomings in local preparedness for handling such incidents. The rise in incidents may be linked to the use of outdated tankers and an increase in the amount of petroleum products being pumped and transported by rail in the United States and Canada.

In April, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a press release announcing that agencies are working to improve the safety of energy product transportation. The agencies will incorporate lessons learned from the recent incidents in an effort to protect public safety. It is less clear to us what the rail companies are doing to fix the problem besides upgrading tank cars.

Our team at Prairie Rivers Network will continue to watch this issue carefully and consider how we may be able to help protect Illinois communities from further incidents. As a growing concern and threat to our rivers, fuel transportation may represent the next frontier in the protection of Illinois’ waters.

Update on May 21, 2015

The Illinois EPA has referred this spill to the Illinois Attorney General for enforcement action.

Read the latest update on the spill in this May 19 article from the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette.