Living in the Blast Zone

Chicagoland_on_FireEvery day, mile-long tanker trains roll through Chicagoland. Around 40 pass by each week, according to a recent report, though the number is unverified and could be higher. They carry crude oil from hydro-fracking operations in the Bakken Shale of North Dakota. Little information is available about these black trains, and a great deal of mystery surrounds them. One thing we do know is that the Bakken crude is full of volatile gas. These tankers can and do explodeagain and again and again. Initially the explosions were blamed on design flaws and structural weaknesses in the huge fleet of ageing DOT-111 tanker cars used to transport the oil. More recently, however, new and supposedly safer tankers have been involved in similar explosions. There is no “easy fix” to this tremendously dangerous public safety issue.

Chicago is the rail hub of the entire United States. About 13.5 million barrels worth of crude oil from North Dakota passes through the metro area every year, on its way to East Coast refineries and ports. The oil travels by rail because the producing corporations want the cheapest, most flexible delivery system for their product – whatever the dangers may be, whether to the crews on the trains or the people living near the tracks. To this date, basic safety issues remain unaddressed.

A researcher with the Seattle-based environmental group Stand has produced a map of the Oil Train Blast Zone showing the most likely routes that these so-called “bomb trains” take. The map also shows half-mile evacuation zones on either side of the suspected routes, as well as potential impact zones of a mile on either side. What it cannot show, however, is where the trains really go. Neither the rail companies, nor the oilmen, nor the government authorities will tell us. But the inhabitants of Chicagoland deserve to know for certain where these explosive convoys pass.

placard-3-flammable_1267Do you see long black tanker trains on your commute to work, at the rail crossing in your town or neighborhood, or maybe out the window of your home? Does each tank car bear a red warning placard marked with the number 1267? The next time you see one of these trains, take a note of the time, the direction of travel, the approximate number of tankers and the name of the company on the lead locomotive, and submit your information on the Bomb Trains page of this website. By revealing the tracks that the oil trains take through densely populated Chicagoland neighborhoods, we can help force regulatory action on a life-threatening issue.

Beyond the bomb trains themselves, there are many questions to ask about crude oil in our region. Most people do not know it, but Chicagoland is home to three of the largest refineries of Canadian tar sands oil: the Exxon facility in Joliet, the Citgo refinery in Lemont, and the BP plant in East Chicago. The oil – or really, the mixture of gooey bitumen and toxic dilutent chemicals, called “dilbit” – is brought to Illinois by a series of Enbridge corporation pipelines that have stealthily replaced the controversial Keystone XL. Tar sands oil is extremely high in carbon, and as a by-product of the refining process it produces the jet-black petroleum coke that can be seen moving through the Chicagoland area on railcars, trucks and barges, or piled up high at the KCBX Terminals owned by the Koch brothers (who we’re recently forced out of that business in Chicago, we’re glad to say). Petcoke is considered too dirty for the US, so most of it will be sold to countries in Asia and Latin America and used for cement plants and power generators there. Petcoke dust is a health hazard to breathe, and like the Bakken crude itself, petcoke is an environmental hazard when it is burned, producing greenhouse gases that lead to devastating climate change. Learn more about these issues on the page Tar Sands Central.

Use the “take action” tab to learn more about the organizing efforts around the Chicagoland region and the Great Lakes. They include: mobilizing against the explosive oil trains with the ChiOilByRail coalition; tar sands and pipeline resistance with the participants of the Tar Sands Resistance Tour and the Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands; environmental justice organizing at the neighborhood level with the Southeast Environmental Task Force and the Little Village Environmental Organization; and nationally or globally coordinated actions like Stop Oil Trains Week of Action or Break Free from Fossil Fuels.

Let’s start doing something about the deadly cargo that moves through our local area.


Adrien Aubert lives in the French Canadian town of Lac Megantic. He heard an explosion, grabbed his HD camera and rushed toward the downtown. He is interviewed here. But his video testimony says it all.

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