Ethanol has replaced oil trains as hidden safety risk in N.J.

Source: By Curtis Tate, • Posted: Monday, October 16, 2017

More than two dozen tank cars hauling ethanol derailed in northwestern Iowa in March of 2017.

The volume of crude oil shipped by rail may have declined in recent months, but communities in New Jersey and other states face another hazard: ethanol.

The flammable biofuel is transported in trains that look virtually identical to the oil trains that have attracted so much attention, and controversy, in the country’s energy boom of the past decade.

But according to federal data, 1 million gallons more ethanol spilled from derailed trains than crude oil from 2005 to 2015.

A report this week released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine warns that the shipment of large quantities of flammable liquids will continue, presenting risks to communities along rail lines that transport them.

The report concludes that defective track, inadequate training for first responders and older tank cars more likely to fail in derailments could pose problems for years.

New Jersey is the third-leading destination for ethanol, behind Texas and California, and more than 60 percent of U.S. ethanol production moves by rail.

“I wouldn’t predict any large change in that,” said Navy Vice Admiral Paul Gaffney, chairman of the committee that produced the report and president emeritus of Monmouth University. “It’s been that way for several years now.”


Steady pace

U.S. ethanol production, which is concentrated in the Midwest, averaged more than 1 million barrels in the first half of this year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

In July the agency forecast that this year could set a record for the corn-based renewable fuel, which is blended into domestic gasoline stocks to help reduce carbon emissions.

Because production is so dispersed, and the distances to refineries so great, rail has become the preferred mode of transportation for ethanol.

While fiery accidents involving ethanol trains never gained as much public attention as those involving crude oil, some have been quite severe.

In June 2009, an ethanol train derailment and fire in Cherry Valley, Illinois, killed a woman waiting in her car at a railroad crossing.

In response to that incident, the rail industry adopted a stronger standard for the tank cars carrying the cargo, known as DOT-111. But those improvements came under scrutiny once more a few years later.

The car’s design again was looked at after a crude oil train lost its brakes and rolled downhill into the lakeside town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July 2013. The catastrophe left 47 people dead and leveled the town’s core.

Lac-Megantic prompted a safety review on both sides of the border by government agencies and industry groups that encompassed track and equipment inspections, train operating procedures, the design of the tank cars and training for first responders.


Big spills

According to data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, more than 1.6 million gallons of crude spilled in 21 oil train derailments from 2005 to 2015, most of it in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Agency data also show that more than 2.6 million gallons of ethanol spilled in 58 derailments during the same 10 years, with eight derailments in 2011 accounting for more than 1 million of those gallons.

Though none of these crude oil or ethanol derailments took place in New Jersey and most occurred in sparsely populated areas, they did in some cases ignite large fires and led to evacuations.

The Federal Railroad Administration concluded in 2014 that ethanol posed an equal or greater risk of exploding in a derailment as crude oil.

In a February 2011 derailment in Ohio, tank cars carrying ethanol ruptured violently, scattering large pieces of the steel tank in multiple directions. The event took place in a rural area at night, and no one was injured.

Whereas a 40 percent increase in pipeline capacity from 2010 to 2016 enabled a reduction in crude oil shipments by rail, particularly to Gulf Coast refineries, ethanol continues to roll across the country in mile-long trains.

While DOT-111 tank cars must be phased out of crude oil transportation by March 1, they can continue to transport ethanol until May 2023.

Missing info

In response to a series of oil train derailments, the U.S. Department of Transportation required the disclosure of large crude oil shipments by rail to state and local officials. The department has yet to complete a requirement for ethanol and other flammable liquids.

The persistence of news organizations, using open-records laws, enabled the public disclosure of oil train volumes in numerous states, but the public remains in the dark on how much ethanol is moving by rail.

Railroads have fought public disclosures of information about shipments of flammable liquids by train, citing security concerns. Yet none of the derailments involving crude oil or ethanol from 2005 to 2015 was the result of a security failure. Virtually all were caused by defective track or equipment.

The National Academies of Sciences says that preventing derailments is imperative.

“Track conditions are something to pay attention to,” Gaffney said.

It also calls for an improvement in how states share information they receive from railroads with local emergency officials.

“There needs to be better dissemination of that information,” said Ed Chapman, a retired director of hazardous materials for BNSF Railway and a consultant for the report. “It’s being provided, but it’s not always being disseminated.”

The report concludes that in spite of a vast improvement in training opportunities for first responders, and the sharing of information about hazardous material shipments by rail, gaps remain.

Rural communities and volunteer fire departments lack access to training opportunities that may be available to career firefighters or departments in more populated areas.

Chapman said that railroads continue to support training for first responders and that the participation rate remains high.

“The opportunities are certainly there,” he said. “The classes are pretty full.”