Diesel Injury Law

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Diesel Exhaust and Chicago Union Station – Part 3 – High-Rises Trap Diesel Exhaust

Chicago Union Station is unique in that the tracks coming and going from the station both on the north and south ends are covered by high-rise buildings. The owners of Chicago Union Station over the years sold the “air rights” over the tracks in order to make a few bucks.

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    Today, high-rise buildings cover around 4 city blocks on either side of the station. The presence of these buildings over the tracks compounds the problem with air quality in the station because all the diesel exhaust generated by the Metra, BNSF and Amtrak locomotives has nowhere to go.

    As a result, clouds of diesel exhaust are trapped under a bunch of high-rise buildings.

    Amtrak will counter this position by arguing that when the “air rights” were sold, the developers and building owners agreed to install and maintain ventilation fans to remove the diesel exhaust. Amtrak, which owns Chicago Union Station via a subsidiary, will claim that proper ventilation of Chicago Union Station was contemplated when it and its predecessors sold the air rights. The problem with this claim is that the responsibility to ventilate Chicago Union Station is no longer centered with one party. Instead, at least 9 different landowners are charged with ventilating Chicago Union Station and not all of them do such a great job.

    Take, for instance, Bill Davies, an English developer who purchased the Old Post Office in 2009. The Old Post Office is nine stories tall and it covers two blocks of trackage south of Chicago Union Station. When Davies bought the Old Post Office, it had been unoccupied for over 10 years. It was a relic. Built in 1931, the Old Post Office’s ventilation system was designed when steam engines were still in use.

    By May of 2011, Amtrak inspections revealed that one-quarter of the Old Post Office’s ventilation fans were not operable. By February of 2012, a letter from Amtrak’s President to Illinois Senator Dick Durbin stated that 53% of the Old Post Office’s ventilation fans were not operable. It was also revealed around this time that Bill Davies wasn’t bothering to pay the Old Post Office’s ComEd bill for the electricity needed to power the exhaust fans.

    In March of 2012, a large fire broke out in the Old Post Office due to a faulty ventilation blower in an exhaust tower. Amtrak eventually had to file a lawsuit in federal court regarding Davies’ complete failure to ventilate Chicago Union Station. In May of 2013, Judge Harry Leinenweber approved a consent decree that required the owner of the Old Post Office to operate all the exhaust fans 24/7.

    If you talk to anyone who worked at Chicago Union Station during these years, you will hear over and over about folks breathing air so dirty that “you could actually see it.”

    Based on interviews conducted by Andrew Hughes of Diesel Injury Law, it seems apparent that the railroads don’t always know whether the ventilation systems of the multiple landowners are actually operating. An industrial hygienist for one of the railroads once admitted that with respect to the fans over the south train shed, the only sure-fire way to determine whether they are running is to go way up in the Sears tower and look down on the high- rises. Diesel Injury Law is investigating claims that some of the air rights’ owners don’t run their ventilation fans 24/7 because high-powered occupants complain about the noise and odors generated by the ventilation systems.

    As you can tell, the diesel exhaust problem at Chicago Union Station is a complex fact pattern. Many parties are to blame. Metra continues to use outdated locomotives that kick off excess diesel exhaust. Amtrak continues to run its locomotives inside the station. And the railroads who send their workers into Chicago Union Station every day don’t really know if the building owners are running the ventilation systems. It’s a standoff.

    You have the building owners and railroads standing on a smoky railroad platform pointing at one another and saying:

    Buy new locomotives!

    Burn cleaner fuel!

    Power down your locomotives!

    Use alternative power!

    Maintain your ventilation system!

    Run your ventilation system!

    In our next chapter, Diesel Injury Law will discuss more recent air quality testing in Chicago Union Station and on Metra trains that once again revealed troubling carcinogenic diesel exhaust levels.

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