Flammable freight trains pass downtown Denver venues, housing

David Heitz

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Freight trains carrying hazardous materials snake past major Denver attractions.City and County of Denver via Zoom

By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.) Rail cars carrying flammable materials pass through Denver every day. Some of those rail lines pass by Ball Arena, Elitch Gardens and Mile-High Stadium. Many snake along tall residential buildings.

Councilmember Debbie Ortega has since 2014 worked to make areas along freight lines safer. But at a City Council committee meeting last week, her colleagues weren’t ready to give the planning department authority to create new rules governing developments along freight rail lines.

Most of the council members want to wait and see the results of a study examining Denver’s rail lines and assessing possible dangers. HTSB is expected to complete the study in December. The committee decided to postpone voting against Ortega’s proposed ordinance until Jan. 17.

The ordinance would have required developments located within 100 feet of rail lines to apply for a permit. Some buildings in Denver get as close to rail lines as 18 feet. One hundred feet would at least prevent derailed cars from setting buildings on fire, Ortega said. A burning freight car carrying flammable liquid can melt the face right off a building, she added.

Slides show trains’ proximity to buildings

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City and County of Denver via Zoom

Jack Patterson from Ortega’s office presented to the committee several slides showing how close the rail cars come to downtown development. “The city is expecting very intense development on both sides of this (rail) corridor,” Patterson said. Councilwoman Kendra Black wondered if “Los Angeles, Kansas City, or any other city” in America has rail cars dissecting their downtowns.

Ortega told Black some cities require developers to mitigate projects next to rail lines on a project-by-project basis. But she did not know of another American city proposing legislation like hers.

Canada has regulations for developments near rail lines, particularly in Calgary. Bureaucrats discussed during the Denver committee meeting that some places have different thresholds for considering risks. They called this “risk tolerance.”

Homeless at Denver derailment site

Patterson showed the council the picture of a derailment in Quebec, Canada that killed 47 people. But he also showed slides of Denver derailments, including freight cars that ended up in the South Platte River in February. Ortega said parks director Scott Gilmore told her homeless people were staying under the bridge.

According to Patterson, Denver experienced 320 “heavy rail incidents” from 1996 to 2015. Derailments amounted to 216 of them. Humans caused 213 incidents and equipment was blamed for 14 malfunctions. There were 26 collisions.

Patterson said between 70,000 and 80,000 rail cars carrying hazardous materials passed through Denver from 2011 to 2015.

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City and County of Denver via Zoom

Councilmembers push back against staff

Councilmember Paul Kashmann said that while he wants to wait until the HTSB study is complete, he expects the planning department to act with “urgency” once direction is given. In response to planning director Laura Aldrete saying catastrophic train derailments are a “one in a million” chance, Kashmann pushed back. “I would be very surprised if a train does not derail, blow up” in the next several years.

Councilmember Amanda Sawyer also pushed back, saying protecting residents from a catastrophe is serious business. “An emergency is not an emergency until it’s an emergency.” Sawyer said she does not intend to put herself into a situation where she must look a resident in the eye and say, “I knew this was a possibility and I did nothing about it” after a disaster.

Ball Arena general counsel taken by surprise

General Counsel for Ball Arena Keirstin Beck spoke against the ordinance during a public hearing held during the committee meeting. She said only had learned of the meeting the night before. “I find it very concerning that I’m just learning about this now.”

A catch-phrase cities sometimes use is “Transit-oriented development.” It’s considered a positive term for bringing transportation access to the masses. But freight lines often are located near passenger rail lines.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here.

Denver, CO
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