Documents released from railroads including Union Pacific, Alton and Southern, and BNSF in response to a state open records request reveal trains hauling tens of millions of gallons of crude oil from North Dakota through the metro-east every week.
On May 7, the U.S. Department of Transportation began requiring railroads to report large shipments of the oil after a series of derailments across North America causing massive fires and spills.
The North Dakota oil is also known as Bakken oil.
Alton and Southern Railway Co., based in East St. Louis, says it averages 20 loaded unit trains of crude oil a week from BNSF and Union Pacific.
Alton and Southern operates 22 miles of track in Madison and St. Clair counties and sometimes stores the oil at its Gateway Yard in East St. Louis, according to the released documents. The railcar sorting facility runs parallel to and less than a mile from Illinois 15/Missouri Avenue, between Interstate 255 and South 20th Street.
Alton and Southern is a subsidary of Union Pacific, which is based in Omaha, Neb., is and the nation's largest rail carrier. UP spokesman Mark Davis defined a unit train as a train of at least 50 cars of the same cargo. The DOT order requires the railroad to report any shipment of Bakken crude of 35 cars or more.
Union Pacific reports 10 to 12 trains each week through St. Clair and Monroe counties; and one to two such trains through Madison.
A railcar holds 31,809 gallons of crude oil, according to the website for American Railcar Industries, a railcar manufacturer based in St. Charles, Mo. That means a UP train carrying a minimum of 35 such cars would be hauling more than 1.1 million gallons of crude. Unit trains frequently have 100 or more cars.
BNSF documents show an average of seven to nine similar trains in Madison County each week. BNSF reports no trains carrying crude oil through St. Clair and Monroe counties.
According to the Association of American Railroads, the industry's leading advocacy group in Washington, rail shipments of crude oil have risen from 9,500 in 2009 to more than 400,000 last year. The rapid increase in the flammable cargo moving by rail in tank cars long known to be vulnerable to punctures and ruptures in derailments has raised concerns about whether local emergency response officials had adequate notification and preparation for a potential accident.
BNSF, North America's largest hauler of crude oil by rail, has offered to train more than 700 firefighters from across the country at the rail industry's test facility near Pueblo, Colo. UP officials earlier this month provided training to fire departments, police and hazardous materials teams by the railroads.
That training tested the firefighters from several departments, including East St. Louis, on handling leaks from train cars hauling crude oil and other hazardous materials.
Davis said Union Pacific has trained more than 38,000 first responders since 2003 in the handling of hazardous materials. Locally, more than 700 first responders from the metro-east and St. Louis have taken classes with UP managers.
Belleville Fire Chief Tom Pour recently talked about trains in the metro-east.
"Day to day, we would not have an idea (of what's on a train) other than what would normally ship through," he said.
Firefighters and other first responders are trained to first use binoculars to look for signage, called placards, on the train that corresponds with information in the Emergency Response Guidebook.
From there, they determine the best course of action, which might include evacuating the area.
"There's a lot of lines that carry primarily coal, and those are a bigger cleanup task," Pour said. "What's even scarier to us sometimes is that a lot of the small shippers (moving less than 999 pounds) ... under that weight limit it doesn't have to be placarded."
But groups representing firefighters and emergency management agencies have testified in Washington over the past few months that virtually no fire department in the country is adequately prepared for the scale of risk.
"The game changer for us is the sheer amount that"s coming through the communities," said Rick Edinger, a hazardous materials expert for the International Association of Fire Chiefs and an assistant fire chief in Chesterfield, Va.
Edinger testified to the National Transportation Safety Board in April that there's a wide variation in preparedness across the states. Most fire departments aren't equipped to confront anything bigger than a gasoline tanker truck, which carries about 9,000 gallons. A crude oil train might carry more than 3 million gallons.
"You should know these things are in your community, and there should be some preplanning and training," he said. "It's our job to be prepared for it as best we can."
Contact reporter Mary Cooley at email@example.com or 618-239-2535. Curtis Tate is a reporter in the BND Washington Bureau.
By the numbers
* One railcar holds almost 32,000 gallons of crude oil.
* Alton and Southern Railway reports averages of 20 unit trains of crude oil a week at and around its facility in East St. Louis.
* Union Pacific reports 10 to 12 trains carrying only crude oil through St. Clair and Monroe counties each week. Each train has more than 1.1 million gallons of crude.
* BNSF reports seven to nine trains in Madison County each week.