May 2, 2013

CHICAGO (May 2)—The British-based owner of downtown Chicago’s vacant Old Main Post Office building agreed in a federally enforced consent decree to restore the ventilation system that exhausts diesel fumes from Amtrak’s platforms and tracks that run underneath the building.

International Property Developers (IPD), a company owned by British real-estate mogul William Davies, acquired the 9-story, two-block-long vacant building from the U.S. Postal Service in 2009 and announced its intention to redevelop the white elephant, which had stood empty since the Postal Service moved to a newer building across Harrison Street in 1997.

But the new owners claimed that their ownership did not include an obligation to maintain and operate a series of large fans and ventilation shafts installed during the building’s 1931 construction to exhaust steam-locomotive smoke from the platform area below.

The owners were confronted with their oversight when a 2010 Chicago Tribune investigation revealed that the fans were not operating, causing a dangerous backup of diesel fumes and soot to be inhaled by passengers and train-crew employees on the platforms–and even by passengers and employees inside trains with their doors closed.

Amtrak, which owns Union Station, later sued IPD in U.S. District Court in an effort to get the Old Post Office fan system operating again, but Davies dragged his feet, insisting his purchase of the building did not include an obligation to vent the Union Station train shed.

In February 2012 U.S. Sen. Richard J. Durbin held a news conference at the station demanding IPD repair and re-activate the fan system. The owners claimed they had done so, but less than two weeks after the news conference a malfunctioning fan ignited a large fire on the roof of the building, forcing the Chicago Fire Department to close off several South Loop streets while the blaze was extinguished.

Rather than contest Amtrak’s lawsuit, IPD signed a consent decree in which it agreed to repair and re-activate the building’s fan system and operate it “seven (7) days a week, twenty-four (24) hour a day.”

“This agreement is great news for all of our members on Metra and Amtrak who must work in that confined train-shed area and for all the passengers who use those platforms to access their trains,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Robert W. Guy. “On behalf of our members, I want to thank Sen. Durbin for bringing the parties to the table and urging them away from expensive and protracted litigation and toward a prompt and comprehensive consent decree. We were happy to supply Sen. Durbin’s office with first-hand accounts from our members about the conditions along the platforms and inside the equipment.”

Under the agreement, engineers from Amtrak’s Chicago Union Station Co. subsidiary are allowed to conduct regular inspections of the Old Post Office’s ventilation machinery to ascertain that it is in working order.

“The announcement that the fans will run is a big relief to everybody who uses those platforms,” Guy said. “The Tribune investigation found that even inside passenger cars with closed doors the soot levels were up to 72 micrograms per cubic meter—way above the level the Environmental Protection Administration considers safe,” Guy said.

Since the investigation Metra has installed more efficient air filters in the ventilation systems of its coaches. It also switched to a cleaner grade of diesel fuel and used a federal grant to install controls that automatically shut down a diesel unit if it idles in the terminal for longer than 10 minutes. These measures, which freight railroads have utilized for several years, are expected to reduce carbon dioxide discharges in the station by more than 81,000 tons per year.

“Restoration of the fan system in the old Post Office is not an aesthetic issue,” Guy said. “It’s not just about bad smells or smarting eyes. Medical science today understands that diesel soot has been implicated in asthma, lung cancer, heart attacks and brain damage, and it can even aggravate the symptoms of diabetes.”

Sen. Durbin observed that while Amtrak and Metra have taken major steps to minimize the discharge and accumulation of diesel soot in the south train shed, properties abutting on, or built over the tracks, must do their part as well.

“Amtrak has taken big steps to clean up Union Station in recent years, but the station’s air quality is only as good as its ventilation,” Durbin said. “Amtrak and the federal court are doing the right thing by making the owner of the Old Post Office keep the fan system running, protecting the health and safety of millions of rail passengers. I applaud Amtrak for fighting for better air quality for their passengers and the City of Chicago for their vigilance ensuring the owner of the Old Post Office is maintaining a safe building.”

Guy said the construction of a new post office building south of the older one in 1997 may have aggravated the soot problem by “capping” the track area and hindering the removal of fumes..

“The area south of Harrison Street was in the open air until the new Post Office went up,” he said. “Now the tracks and platforms at the south end of Union Station are entirely enclosed for almost four city blocks. The old Post Office occupies the middle two blocks of that stretch, so if its fans are not operating you have a dangerous ‘tunnel effect” that traps diesel exhaust and funnels it right back into the concourse and the waiting rooms and restaurants.

“We are very much hoping that the re-activation of the fans in the Old Post Office will reduce this health hazard,” Guy said. “Our members and the passengers they serve have lived with it too long.”