PETRO PERIL: Three months after train derailment in Galena, volatile crude still fuels concerns

By Taylor Hall

GALENA, Ill.– It was a slow day at the Chestnut Mountain Ski Resort when bartender Hannah Davidson glanced out the dining room’s wraparound window and watched the afternoon sky turn completely black.

“We actually saw the explosion,” Davidson said. “We’re at a 475-foot vertical here, and we could see the flames above the trees. The smoke was coming up, and it reached all the way to Rockford. The sky was completely black. It was nothing like I’d ever seen before. And it didn’t look like fire smoke, the kind that dissipates. I just remember seeing crazy flames.”

At about 1:50 p.m. on March 5, a Burlington Northern Santa Fe, or BNSF, freight train derailed 3.5 miles south of Galena, Illinois, a charming, historic tourist town of just more than 3,000 residents located 170 miles northwest of Chicago. The train was carrying approximately 3 million gallons of crude oil in 103 enhanced CPC-1232 tanker cars at about 23 mph when 21 of its tank cars derailed, rupturing seven and setting fire to five.

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The derailment ignited a fireball, spilling over 140,000 gallons of Bakken crude oil into the earth. Though there were no injuries reported from the derailment and explosion, blamed on a broken tank car wheel by the Federal Railroad Administration, the toxic flare-up raged for four days—one of the latest incidents in a growing trend of oil-by-rail accidents raising alarms across North America.

Environmental experts and first responders said if the train had been 100 feet farther up or down the tracks when it derailed, the oil would have likely been dumped directly into the Mississippi River, threatening water supplies, local wildlife and archaeological resources.

“All of a sudden the phones started ringing off the hook. We had [The Wall Street Journal] calling out here, and the Chicago Tribune, and all these news companies wanted to tap our cameras,” Davidson said.

The Chestnut Mountain Ski Resort’s live-feed cameras installed in the top of its ski lifts captured the derailment’s fiery aftermath as Hannah watched the scene unfold.

“I read in the paper, they published an article that said no environmental threats were posed,” Davidson said, scrolling through photos of the incident on her cell phone. “And I was like, that’s a crock. It’s right next to the river. How many thousands and thousands of gallons just got burnt off? I think maybe it’s too early to tell.”

The train that derailed in Galena was headed from North Dakota to a refinery in Philadelphia, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Though BNSF has not confirmed the route, rail industry experts say the train almost certainly would have passed through Chicago, the nation’s busiest rail hub, within hours, had it not derailed.

Since the North Dakota Bakken boom began six years ago, trains carrying the highly flammable crude have crisscrossed the country at an exponential rate. Shipments of crude oil by rail have increased over 4,000 percent from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 400,000 carloads in 2013, according to the Association of American Railroads.

But with increased rail traffic, accidents have increased, too, and five trains have derailed and caught fire in North America in 2015 alone.

“Nationally, the rising number of fiery train derailments across the country is unacceptable,” U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin said.

Galena’s derailment happened on a Thursday afternoon, and responders fought pillars of flames and mushroom clouds of thick, black smoke until Sunday. The railway was repaired and pushing oil tankers back down the rails by early Monday morning.

Though the small tourism community—momentarily catapulted into the national spotlight—has since returned to its everyday routine, memories of the accident are still fresh in the minds of Galena residents three months later. Their stories offer lessons for Chicago, the nation’s rail hub, and for those familiar with the rumble of tanker trains rolling down nearby tracks.


The stories and locations of some of the people affected that day.

Randy Beadle
Galena Fire Chief
“Once we got on-scene and we were putting water on the fire, things got worse. So one of our officers decided it was time to back out before somebody got killed. And then things, it started getting real bad. As far as being a volunteer department, it was overwhelming to have that magnitude of an incident.”

Beadle was one of 10 Galena firefighters who responded to the initial derailment dispatch. BNSF originally located the accident at the Ferry Landing intersection, on the opposite side of the Galena River and nearly 3 miles from the actual derailment site. Responders were forced to return to town and plow their way down a snow-covered bike trail to reach the correct accident site, by then already a fiery blaze.

The chief of the 41-person, all-volunteer fire department said he slept two hours a night while leading the response the first six days following the accident. The volunteer fire chief and full-time auto body shop owner, who activated the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System alerting nearby responders to the accident, said ultimately railroads, not responders, should “ante up” for better training and safety measures.

Todd Lincoln
Galena Alderman and Volunteer Firefighter


Todd Lincoln

“[The accident] really made us sit down and look over our emergency plans. In the fall we have a festival that attracts 8,000-12,000 people. The tracks go right by that park. That could’ve been a potential for a bigger hazard trying to get those people safely away. I don’t think there’s a good time for any of this to happen. But the place where it did, we just got lucky.”

Lincoln, a 17-year veteran of the Galena Fire Department, was working at his wife’s jewelry shop when the distress call came in, but raced to the scene as soon as he could. The lifelong Galena resident and father of two attributes the successful management of the derailment to the fire department’s training standards, which he said exceed those of other volunteer departments.

Kevin Turner
Jo Daviess County Sheriff
“Our big thing was notification of the homeowners just to make sure we did the proper evacuation and then security at the site after the initial call-out. I think just with the response from all the state government agencies – that was a little bit overwhelming. We didn’t expect the EPA and OSHA to be responding to the actual accident.

Turner, who said the derailment was the “biggest ordeal” he has faced in 19 years of service, was at a meeting with Gov. Bruce Rauner in Freeport, Illinois, when he received a text from his communications sergeant about the derailment. Twenty minutes later, he received another text that hazardous materials were involved and left the meeting to rush to the accident site.

Turney said his office plans more training with the fire department and feels another area that could use improvement is with credentialing “to make sure people coming in actually were who they said they were.”

Mark Moran
Galena City Administrator

“The derailment was kind of a life-changer. The community has always been sensitive to the risks of rail. I think all communities on them are and are aware of the risks, whether it’s ethanol or Bakken crude. But we need to be asking what our communities are doing to protect us.”


Moran served as public information officer for Galena during the accident, managing media inquiries, holding press conferences and orchestrating activities among the 450 local, state and federal responders who had flocked to Galena by March 6.

Moran has been instrumental in drafting new rail safety and emergency response resolutions for Galena in the wake of the derailment, and credits the Natural Incident Management System in place for the organizational success during the days following the accident.

Pam Bernstein

“We’ve been trying to get a passenger train through here for years. And one thing Amtrak told us that I just can’t – you know, this is so ridiculous. They told us the track isn’t in good enough shape for passenger trains. You wanna think about that? Yet, it’s okay to haul these tanker trains through here with 100 cars of oil on them. I guess the track is good enough for that.”


Alderman Bernstein, who has served on the boards of the Galena Artists’ Guild, the Galena Community Garden and the Galena Public Library, said railroad cooperation and first responder training ultimately will not solve the larger underlying problems of climate change and dependence on fossil fuels.

Delight McCrea
“I found it all a little offensive. It was kind of whitewashed. The government did their job, but the highlight should have been: what the hell? How far was this from town center? That’s what should have been in the newspaper. If it had happened on the Canadian National line, and somebody had been in that park or walking across that bridge, they would’ve been gone. And it was almost sheer luck that that didn’t happen.”


McCrea, the wife of pastor Jim McCrea of Galena’s First Presbyterian Church, said the city’s cooperation with BNSF felt like the ‘good old boy’ system.

She expressed concern about the safety of Galena’s second rail line, which also carries crude oil and runs through the town’s popular Grant Park. McCrea works at the Galena & U.S. Grant Museum.

P. Carter Newton
Galena Gazette Publisher

“There was a positive economic impact. Not even just at motels, but at hardware stores there were people buying shovels. And there were haircuts, manicures, pedicures, hotel rooms and restaurant meals. And people were so impressed with the way they were treated here they said they would come back. You have to remember, this is a tourism community.”


Newton said tourism is often slow in Galena during the colder winter months, and the influx of media and responders brought in a wave of unexpected business.

John Schultz
“It was quite a cloud. At about 3 o’clock I was coming back and I could see this big cloud of smoke as I started getting a mile or two out of Galena. And I thought at first it looked like it was near my house. And it was just starting to build up, the fire was – the smoke. And as I got closer I could tell that it was slightly down here on the railroad tracks. And as I got out of my car I could hear it.”


Schultz had just stepped out of his car at home on March 5 when an Illinois state police officer pulled in behind him, suggesting he evacuate. A farmer, self-described Federalist, township trustee and substitute science teacher with family roots in Galena dating back to 1846, Schultz was one of six homeowners asked to leave the evacuation zone within 1 mile of the accident. Schultz said he chose not to evacuate so he could stay and care for his cattle, which were spooked by the explosions. He called the railroad “a relatively good neighbor” but “in conditions like this is more powerful than the government. They do what they want. Then again, the railroad has basically always done what they’ve wanted to do.”

Steve Barg
Director, Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation


“That’s our world-class river, with a huge national wildlife refuge, the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge, which runs from the south of here up into Minnesota – 241,000 acres of wetlands and backwaters and slews and floodplain forests. Plus up on the blufflands, this really rich forested area, coupled with the prairies and savannahs and archaeological resources. Oil spills are particularly problematic here because of the chances of them entering into an internationally important river is much higher than it is in other places. We don’t have the population centers that other places have where this oil is going through like New York or Chicago, but we have extremely sensitive environmental resources. And that’s what’s at stake here environmentally for oil spills and other disasters.”

A conservationalist and teaching naturalist, Barg was in a board meeting March 5 when his phone began to ring so many times that the board members finally suggested he pick it up.

The derailment happened within several hundred yards of the Jo Daviess Conservation Foundation’s 316-acre Portage Preserve, and less than 1 mile from the Foundation’s Casper’s Bluff Land and Water Preserve.

The day after the derailment, the conservation foundation released a statement calling for reassessment of risky oil transport through the environmentally important region.

Greg Kazmerski
Illinois EPA
“Nothing has gotten into the water yet. It’s miraculous. Part of it is they built a nice soil berm around it. A lot of it was just plain luck of where the train derailed. They did catch a lot of breaks. Normally that time of year, that would’ve been underwater, but there was no real significant flooding this year. And they did a lot of things right, but they also caught a lot of breaks. So that combination kept the water clean. Some of it was remediation by fire. So much of it burned off.”


Kazmerski said the U.S. and Illinois EPA emergency units arrived at the site of the derailment, where dense woods made cell phone and radio coverage nearly impossible, within a matter of hours. As soon as the fire was extinguished, the EPA began its ongoing clean-up efforts. Railroads like BNSF, Kazmerski said, are cooperative during this process so they retain their business over increasing competition from pipelines.

Location of derailment and where some of those quoted above were when it happened. Mouse over dots for details.

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In Galena, people talking about the derailment often mention the small things that did or didn’t happen, the inches and “ifs” that averted real catastrophe. The word “lucky” is also used often to describe the chain of events that confined the derailment and fire to the riverbank.

“We dodged a bullet, and it could’ve been much, much worse than it was,” said Steve Barg, director of theJo Daviess Conservation Foundation. “But this is no time for complacency, and in fact, it’s time to really look more closely and examine what can we do to ensure that these kinds of things won’t happen in the future.”

“It’s so easy and common for people to be relieved. ‘Oh, thank goodness, that’s over.’ And they go on with their lives and they forget about it. That’s probably not the best thing that could happen.”
— Alderman Pam Bernstein.

Other communities haven’t been as lucky as Galena, and since 2013, crude oil rail incidents have devastated communities in Virginia, North Dakota, Alabama and Canada.

Nine weeks after the Galena accident, the fire is long extinguished, and the railway has been repaired. The damaged tanker cars have been cleaned, cut up and removed from the site, and the contaminated soil has largely been removed. Personnel and equipment costs to the City have been totaled and submitted for reimbursement to the railway. There are still roads that need repairs, and still a few Illinois EPA contractors monitoring site remediation, but the work is mostly done.

But though final efforts may be wrapping up on the BNSF site, city leaders say the story of Galena’s train derailment is far from over. Questions of “what if” have been replaced by “what’s next?” as residents and officials wonder when and where the next derailment will occur.

“It’s so easy and common for people to be relieved. ‘Oh, thank goodness, that’s over.’ And they go on with their lives and they forget about it. That’s probably not the best thing that could happen,” Ald. Pam Bernstein said. “The city staff has been really diligent in pursuing this and not letting this drop.”

Almost immediately, Galena officials began evaluating risks related to trains moving through the city and preparing for future emergencies.

Eight days after the derailment fire was extinguished, the City of Galena submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Federal Railroad Administration for the most recent inspection records of the Canadian National railway running through the center of town.

But the request came to no avail.

“[T]he agency’s files do not contain any records related to the inspection of Canadian National rail and bridges in and near Galena, Illinois,” FOIA Officer Denise Kollehlon’s response states.

In a subsequent letter to Jim Kvedaras, director of U.S. Government Affairs for Canadian National Railway, Galena Administrator Mark Moran wrote: “The response calls into question if the railroad or FRA is required to inspect the track and bridges and, if so, are the records available for public inspection? …I would appreciate any information you could provide to help our community understand exactly which commodities are being transported through Galena on CN track and the relative amounts of those commodities.”

His words highlight information gaps between railways and the communities they traverse.

“We are required to offer these services to customers, no matter what their commodity is, as long as their shipments are tendered to us in a manner compliant with industry and regulatory requirements,” Kvedaras responded.

Spurred on, Moran drafted a resolution calling for improvements to these regulations. On March 23, Galena Mayor Terry Renner and the Galena City Council passed Resolution R15-03 supporting improved standards for transporting highly flammable cargo by rail.

“These trains have been derailing since they started putting them on the track. And now with the amount of crude they’re hauling, because they’re so volatile, every time they get off the track they’re exploding.” — Randy Beadle

The resolution urges “Congress, the Administration and private industry” to ensure Bakken crude is appropriately classified; to implement new safety standards for oil train tanker cars; to require route evaluation for crude oil trains to avoid populous and other sensitive areas; to invest in technology that will prevent derailments; to require railroads to provide first responders with information about all oil transported near their communities; to train first responders; and to reduce unit train car length for trains carrying highly flammable materials.

The City sent the resolution, adopted by the nearby East Galena Township and Village of Hanover, to President Barack Obama, state and national representatives, and rail industry leaders.

In their responses, Kvedaras, U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos and Association of American Railroads President Edward Hamberger have expressed their sympathies, but referenced only those rail safety measures already in place.

Fire Chief Randy Beadle said the existing measures aren’t enough to stop future derailments.

“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when and where,” Beadle said. “These trains have been derailing since they started putting them on the track. And now with the amount of crude they’re hauling, because they’re so volatile, every time they get off the track they’re exploding.

“Derailments aren’t new, but when it happens with lumber and grain, there’s nothing but product lost. But with this Bakken crude, when you’re talking millions of dollars an hour when those trains aren’t running, it puts binds on the railroad. But I don’t think the government can stand back and keep watching this happen.”

Today, Galena’s leaders continue to promote their resolution, push for awareness of rail safety issues and call for the implementation of increased rail safety measures.

Beadle offered advice to emergency responders across the country: “Just be ready for it. Try to have some sort of a pre-plan. Talk to different agencies because you’re not gonna do it alone. Make sure you have agencies you can get in contact immediately. Get training from the railroad.”

Ald. Pam Bernstein also offered advice for communities near rail lines, like Chicago, where everyday strings of black tank cars filled with crude oil roll through the city.

“Encourage people to contact their legislators to try and do something about this issue,” Bernstein said. “It’s dangerous. It has the potential effect across the nation really, anywhere where there’s a railroad track and they’re running these trains.”

“You move to Galena and you hear those trains and they’re noisy and you’re not used to it. And after you live here for a while, it’s kind of a comforting sound and just blends in with the ambience. It’s like cows mooing in the field or something. But now you don’t feel like that.”

petro peril 250One in an ongoing series of stories examining the impact of millions of gallons of volatile crude oil as it passes in rail tanker cars through densely populated Chicagoland each day.