Developers Vow to Fix Fans at Old Post Office

Amtrak leaders say pollution from the building threatens Union Station commuters

The owners of Chicago’s hulking Old Post Office took issue Monday with a federal lawsuit which claims that the building has fallen into such a state of disrepair that the health of Amtrak and Metra passengers has been put in jeopardy.

At issue are the exhaust fans the building is required by law to operate to blow away the soot and smoke generated by trains operating on the Union Station tracks running below the sprawling facility.  Under rules put in place when the building was built in 1931, the owners must make certain exhaust systems are in place to clear the dirty air from the the platforms below.

In a complaint filed Friday in Federal Court, Amtrak said its own inspections found that five of the eleven existing fans were not functioning properly, and that the system was operating at only 53 percent of its capacity.

"If left unresolved, the conditions at the post office have the potential to put the safety and health of [Union Station's] and Amtrak’s employees and customers, as well as the general public, at risk," the suit states.

The suit further suggests that the building is in general disrepair, noting that inspectors had found that "tiles and shingles containing asbestos have been falling from the structure onto the tracks," and that leaking water was raining down on the tracks as well.

Sen. Richard Durbin said he has written the building’s present owners, International Property Developers, asking them to rectify the problems.

"The fact is, the air we breathe affects our health," said Durbin. "Turn on the ventilation fans, and protect the people."

The chief of Chicago’s Respiratory Health Association said for commuters and Amtrak passengers, the dangers are very real.

"The diesel exhaust we are talking about contains 40 chemicals that have been proven to cause cancer," said Joel Africk, the organization’s president. "Diesel soot air pollution is not a political issue."

International Property Developers took over ownership of the empty building in 2009.  Project Manager Martin Mulryan said Monday in a statement that corrective action is already underway.

"We are sending three of our eleven extractor fans in for repairs this week," Mulryan said. "The other eight are fully functioning."

"We have taken these steps, even though we are still awaiting planning approval from the city," he added.

"I don’t want to win a lawsuit," Durbin said. " want to clean up the air in this building.  If they’re prepared to do this, if that’s what they’re saying, then we’ll have a press conference and thank them.”

Late Monday, a spokesman at a public relations agency hired by the developers, said that six of the seven primary fans were currently working, and that all would be operational within a month.

An investigation last year found that Metra’s air pollution problems were far worse than the agency publicly disclosed.

Metra’s testing results obtained by the Tribune under the Freedom of Information Act show the worst pollution was generally found on trains leaving the south platform at Union Station.

The highest soot levels were found on a train leaving the Ogilvie Transportation Center, and higher-than normal levels were found on outbound trains from the LaSalle Street station, the Tribune report found.

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