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Englewood, Chatham, Auburn Gresham

Norfolk Southern Derailment Sent Toxic Fumes Into Ohio’s Air. Now, Chicago’s Englewood Neighbors Are Fighting To Keep Their Community Safe

The company has spent years expanding on the South Side, gearing up to run more freight traffic through a dense residential area shouldering decades of environmental burden.

A freight train runs through Englewood along Stewart Avenue as land continues to be cleared for the expansion of the Norfolk Southern intermodal yard in Englewood on Jan. 9, 2023.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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ENGLEWOOD — While Ohio residents grapple with the aftermath of a derailed freight train, the disaster has stoked long-held fears for residents in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood: What if that happened here?

Thirty-eight rail cars on a freight train operated by Norfolk Southern Railway derailed Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The crash sparked a fire and released chemicals into the environment.

Norfolk Southern since has faced intense criticism. And in Englewood, neighbors’ concerns — voiced for years as the company has expanded in the area and damaged trust — have gained renewed urgency.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The Norfolk Southern intermodal yard that sits north of Garfield Boulevard in Englewood on Jan. 9, 2023.

For years, the company quietly bought private homes in Englewood and tore them down to build the 47th Street intermodal yard. The railway company has failed to hire locally, repair damage caused by trucks or release environmental studies to show its impact, local officials and organizers said.

Recently, the company has been finishing a years-long expansion of the rail yard, extending south into the heart of Englewood to bolster capacity and send more freight through the area.

The East Palestine disaster should be a “wake-up call” for local officials, and it’s time for the company to do right by residents, some neighbors said.

“We need elected officials to put in extreme regulations, oversight and public, transparent reporting over Norfolk Southern,” said Cecile DeMello, executive director of Teamwork Englewood. “This includes the work in Ohio and the work they’re trying to do in Englewood.

“They need to discuss concrete ways they’re going to repair the harm in Ohio and Englewood and how they’re going to improve communities that have been impacted by the acts of the freights in a holistic way.”

In a statement after the story published, a spokesperson for Norfolk Southern said the 47th Street intermodal facility  “wouldn’t typically see hazardous materials” move through the rail yard.

“Incidents involving hazardous material spills are extremely rare, but we are prepared for them,” the statement read. “Norfolk Southern has a team of regional hazardous material professionals and are backed up by specialized contractors that respond immediately to any incident.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A freight train runs through Englewood along Stewart Avenue as land continues to be cleared for the expansion of the Norfolk Southern intermodal yard in Englewood on Jan. 9, 2023.

‘A Single Bottom Line’

Bob Israel, a lifelong Englewood resident, was visiting New York when the derailment happened in East Palestine.

“I was flicking through the channels, and I saw national outlets covering an explosion,” Israel said. “Then I heard the magical name: Norfolk Southern. I turned the TV on blast.”

Eleven of the derailed rail cars contained hazardous materials, which spread into the soil and the water. Five cars contained vinyl chloride, a colorless gas that can cause serious health issues when inhaled or exposed to the skin.

To prevent the risk of an unanticipated explosion, Norfolk Southern released the vinyl chloride and burned it for several days, creating a large smoke plume.

In the weeks since the disaster, East Palestine’s Environmental Protection Agency has said the air is safe to breathe and the water OK to consume, though people in the area have reported concerns, according to The Associated Press.

Norfolk Southern launched a website to keep residents updated on environmental safety concerns and family assistance programs. The company has also vowed to establish a $1 million fund to support the community and to reimburse the local Fire Department.

But for a company that earns more than $1 billion a year, $1 million isn’t nearly enough, said Marcus Robinson, who lives near the 47th Street rail yard. Norfolk Southern has to do more for the communities it’s chosen to build in, Robinson said.

Norfolk should have pledged “hundreds of millions of dollars to make things right” for the environmental hazard in East Palestine, Robinson said.

“Norfolk Southern is a company that has demonstrated a single bottom line,” Robinson said. “They don’t much care about their employers or employees, or they would hire enough to keep them safe and do the job well. And they don’t care much about the impact that their work has on the public.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A freight train runs through Englewood along Stewart Avenue.

Israel and other neighbors have been fighting for the company to do better by Englewood residents for more than a decade, starting when Norfolk Southern began acquiring South Side land in 2008.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration sold 105 vacant, city-owned lots for $1.1 million to the railway company from Garfield Boulevard to 61st Street and Wallace Street to Stewart Avenue in 2013. That section of land once housed hundreds of residents whom the rail company bought out or forced out using eminent domain.

“The Area,” a 2018 documentary created by sociologist David Schalliol, followed Englewood residents who tried to stop the company’s efforts for six years.

Norfolk Southern has worked in “phases” since 2013 to build and expand the rail yard. A redevelopment deal signed that same year gave the company oversight to shut down streets and alleys between the land the company owns. Norfolk Southern can permanently shut the streets to traffic as long it follows city guidelines. 

Company officials have said the expansion is needed because Chicago is a critical juncture for freight transportation.

In addition to utilizing a “number of leading technologies,” the railway company has “ramped up” investments to train conductors to “ensure we are building a team that safely delivers for our customers,” company officials said in a statement.

“We thank Chicago and all the leaders who have collaborated with us to move the 47th Street Intermodal Facility forward, to expand economic opportunity in the local community, and to safely keep freight moving for America’s consumers and businesses.”

But neighbors have long worried about the environmental and other impacts of having a massive freight yard in their community.

Sixteen percent of adults in Englewood and 12.7 percent in West Englewood reported having asthma between 2020 and 2021, compared to 8.6 percent of adults citywide, according to health data. Fumes from the trucks that move through the intermodal yard could exacerbate neighbors’ conditions, some residents worry. 

In 2018, Norfolk Southern came under harsh criticism for a controversial sting operation that left bait trucks filled with shoes in Englewood, an underserved neighborhood, in an effort to address cargo theft in the area. After initially defending the tactic, Norfolk Southern later apologized and promised to stop the practice.

The company has also been criticized for not doing more to prevent people stealing guns from trains in its rail yards — thefts that have put more than 100 guns on the streets and fueled crime, according to the Associated Press.

Residents and advocates have also protested declining property values and the possibility of crumbling infrastructure under 35,000-pound trucks. Neighbors have demanded jobs and contracting opportunities. 

Norfolk has answered with “parlor tricks,” Israel said. 

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
5931 S. Normal Blvd. is one of the two remaining homes on its block as land continues to be cleared for the expansion of the Norfolk Southern intermodal yard in Englewood.

At a January community meeting, Herbert Smith, director of government relations for Norfolk Southern, revealed the company has only hired 50 residents from seven South Side ZIP codes since 2014. 

A timeline shared by the company showed only five employees from five South Side ZIP codes in Englewood, Auburn Gresham and Hyde Park “were hired in recent years, and remain actively employed, as of November 2022,” Smith said.

Englewood neighbors are wondering what local and federal officials will do to protect them from potential disasters. It’s time for officials to “look at what’s happening in East Palestine and be outraged,” Robinson said. 

“Norfolk should give back to the community to mitigate the harm, because it isn’t going away,” Robinson said. “That is a function of regulation and leadership. Our aldermen ought to get on their high horse and ask for what the people need and fight for it.”

Israel, who owns contracting firm How Can I Help You, LLC, said part of that means hiring Black contractors who are invested in and care about the betterment of their communities. 

“We need the jobs, the contracting and the opportunities since they took people’s homes through eminent domain and the railway is expanding,” Israel said. “… Where are our opportunities?”

In Ohio and Chicago, neighbors will feel the ripple effect of having Norfolk in their community for generations to come, Robinson said. 

“The situations that East Palestine and neighborhoods like ours are confronted with are hard and difficult, but they’re solvable,” Robinson said. “Norfolk Southern could be a better company and better situated with homeowners if they were a better steward of its employees and the communities in which it serves.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) speaks out about the Norfolk Southern expansion at a City Council meeting on Feb. 1, 2023.

‘Norfolk Southern Doesn’t Mean Anybody Well’

Ald. Jeanette Taylor (20th) is the latest alderperson to lead the charge against Norfolk Southern.

For months, Taylor blocked an ordinance that would give the railway company oversight of the streets and alleys between Garfield Boulevard and 59th Street and between Stewart Avenue and Wallace Street.

Taylor joined neighbors to demand the railway company hire locally, fix crumbling infrastructure and study the health impacts of having the company in the community.

Taylor dropped the fight in February and approved the ordinance at a City Council meeting because the company agreed to employ local, Black contractors and to host hiring fairs and reinvest in the community, she said. The city has agreed to conduct environmental studies evaluating the impact of the intermodal yard, Taylor said.

In a February letter obtained by the Tribune, Norfolk Southern officials did not mention doing an environmental study, listed no commitments on hiring and said railroads are monitored by federal, not city, officials. The letter was sent to Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), chair of the council’s transportation committee.

Taylor wasn’t in office when Norfolk Southern began its work in Englewood, she said. Yet she’s left “holding the bag, which isn’t fair,” she said. 

Local and federal colleagues must join the fight to guarantee what happened in Ohio doesn’t happen in Englewood, Taylor said.

“I would like Dick Durbin, along with Tammy Duckworth and the rest of the congressmen, to make sure they’re holding Norfolk to a higher standard instead of taking their money,” Taylor said. “Norfolk Southern doesn’t mean anybody well.”

This isn’t the first time Norfolk Southern has made promises to Englewood, said Asiaha Butler, founder of the Resident Association of Greater Englewood. 

Conversations about investing and supporting Englewood date back years, but the railway company “has a track record” of falling short, Butler said.

“Norfolk Southern hasn’t integrated or learned about the Englewood community,” Butler said. “I hope Ald. Taylor holds their feet to the fire and it’s not just a backroom deal where only a couple of people benefit, but is truly beneficial to the entire community.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The Englewood Line, a 1.5-mile elevated railroad that is being proposed as a nature trail between 58th and 59th streets, from Wallace to Hoyne. Photographed is the overpass at Halsted Street on April 13, 2022.

‘Is The Community Safe?’

Norfolk Southern needs to be a “better partner in the community,” said Anton Seals, executive director at Grow Greater Englewood.

Seals’ nonprofit empowers residents through local food economies and land sovereignty and is leading efforts to create the 1.5-mile multi-million dollar Englewood Nature Trail.

In 2014, the city agreed to a land swap with Norfolk Southern and acquired a 1.7-mile abandoned rail line in exchange for more city-owned land near the railway’s 63rd Street yard. That rail line north of 59th is home to the trail.

Despite boasting the Englewood Nature Trail as one of its contributions in community meetings, Norfolk Southern has never helped Grow Greater Englewood on its journey to create the nature trail, Seals said. Company officials also failed initially to attend community meetings in East Palestine following the derailment.

“Norfolk has always been a corporate actor that doesn’t really connect with the community in a real, authentic way,” Seals said. “They have a track record of being almost like corporate bullies, given how they sequestered and got the land to expand the intermodal yard and didn’t provide jobs and resources to the community. It sounds like they always try to give as least as possible.”

Norfolk Southern should devote funds to cleaning up Englewood, particularly around the nature trail; invest in air quality mitigation and infrastructure improvements and be transparent about what freight trains are transporting through the area, Seals said.

Neighbors deserve to know what’s moving through their backyards, Seals said.

“Is the community safe? Are these kinds of things going through our community? How will we know? These are the questions that our elected officials need to be asking,” Seals said. “I think the opportunity from this disaster is determining what safeguards we have in place.” 

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
A freight train runs through Englewood along Stewart Avenue as land continues to be cleared for the expansion of the Norfolk Southern intermodal yard in Englewood on Jan. 9, 2023.

The destruction unfolding in Ohio is happening in real time, and federal officials should keep their focus on it, DeMello said.

“I think Englewood residents deserve elected officials to create concrete oversight over the company to make sure that the deliverables that are fair and equitable for the community are facilitated,” DeMello said. “I don’t know who Norfolk is having conversations with around the interests of Englewood, but I think it could be bigger, broader, more patient and intentional.”

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