How safe is ethanol shipping?

Source: Written by CHRISTOPHER DOERING | | GANNETT WASHINGTON BUREAU • Posted: Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Iowa residents show little concern, despite worries elsewhere over derailments

Crews work at the scene of a derailment near Charles City in May. This accident and others have focused attention on the safety of transporting ethanol, crude oil and other hazardous materials by rail.

 Crews work at the scene of a derailment near Charles City in May. This accident and others have focused attention on the safety of transporting ethanol, crude oil and other hazardous materials by rail. / Arian Schuessler/Mason City Globe Gazette file pho

WASHINGTON —  The May derailment of a Canadian Pacific train five miles outside of Charles City in northern Iowa hasn’t caused residents to question the safety of shipping the corn-based fuel by rail, despite concerns elsewhere.

Farmers nearby grow row upon row of corn that is shipped to local ethanol plants, including a Valero facility just two miles northwest of town. The ethanol plants have attracted jobs and helped pump money into local businesses that populate the community of nearly 7,700 residents.

The late-night derailment, the result of a washed-out track following flooding, sent four cars loaded with ethanol, one carrying rocks and three locomotives from the 80-car train into the Little Cedar River that runs parallel to the tracks. The accident sent 49,000 gallons of ethanol from three of the tank cars and up to 400 gallons diesel from one of the train’s locomotives leaking into the water.

“I haven’t heard any negative comments or concerns about ethanol being transported through the community,” said Eric Whipple, the fire chief in Charles City. “I think it has become a way of life and just the way things go with all of the ethanol plants in the area.”

“It has to be transported somehow, and as long as the ethanol companies and the railroad companies are using safety precautions … I think people are fairly confident that their safety is OK.”

Still, the Iowa derailment was just one of the accidents in recent months that have focused attention on the safety of transporting ethanol, crude oil and other hazardous materials by rail. In early July, a runaway freight train hauling crude oil in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, derailed and exploded, killing 47 people. A few weeks later, a CSX ethanol train derailed in Florida’s Port of Tampa, sending 11 cars off the track, including three that spilled fuel.

Ethanol cannot be shipped through gasoline pipelines because of its corrosive properties, leaving movement of the flammable liquid to trains and trucks, often through densely populated residential areas. The ethanol industry has conceded that with railroads shipping about 75 percent of ethanol transported each year, safe delivery of the fuel is paramount.

“For the ethanol industry to be viable, we need rail transport,” said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. “If someone is saying we need to make some changes, then we need to be a part of the discussion.”

The Surface Transportation Board, a regulatory body charged with overseeing the rail industry, estimated that in Iowa, the country’s largest ethanol producer, nearly 100,000 cars, or about 32 percent of U.S. shipments, originated from the state in 2011.

“You want a perfect record, but I’m not sure that’s going to happen,” Shaw conceded. “We’re a big part of Iowa’s economy, and you can’t just take that lightly.”

Toward that end, ethanol producers, emergency officials, railroads and local communities have worked more closely to prevent accidents and ensure that any that do occur are quickly addressed

Before the Charles City derailment, Whipple said railroad officials and other experts had trained local fire and rescue personnel on how to deal with spills of substances such as ethanol, giving firsthand knowledge about the way the fuel acts in an accident and what to do if it starts on fire

“Everything seemed to go really smoothly with how we’ve been trained to handle those situations,” he said.

Rail companies are required to provide towns, upon request, a list of the most popular hazardous materials shipped through the area to help local officials prepare for any emergency. In addition, the contents of each tank car and its position in the train must be documented. For its part, the federal government reviews routes picked to transport hazardous materials and can require a carrier to use another rail line if the risk to population centers or environmentally sensitive areas is determined to be too great.

The number of severe accidents involving ethanol tank cars has been small considering the sharp growth in ethanol shipments from the Midwest to the East Coast, California and Texas, and a corresponding increase in mileage. Ethanol tank cars traveled a total of 38.8 billion miles in 2011.

The rail industry has touted its strong safety record on hazardous materials shipments, including ethanol, with more than 99.99 percent of all shipments arriving at their destination without incident. Overall, accidents involving the release of hazardous materials have fallen by 16 percent over the last decade, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

In 2011, the agency said there were 2.2 million carloads of hazardous materials shipped by rail, with only 21 cars experiencing any type of release. In Iowa, only a handful of train cars have released hazardous material in the last decade: three this year from the derailment in Charles City, one in Lester in 2012, and two in 2009 from an accident near Jesup.

“The tremendous safety record (we have) for moving hazardous materials includes crude and ethanol,” said Holly Arthur, a spokeswoman with the Association of American Railroads.

When asked if tankers used to ship ethanol are as safe as they can be, Arthur said: “The industry is constantly looking for ways to improve the safety of everything we do, including tank cars.”

Tank car manufacturers, along with the rail and chemical industries, agreed voluntarily to strengthen the safety of tank cars built since October 2011 by including thicker, puncture-resistant shells and extra protective shields at the ends of each car.

The groups considered retrofitting cars built before that time, about 40,000 tankers, but determined it would be too difficult and costly. The decision drew the ire of the National Transportation Safety Board, which said in a March 2012 report that the rail industry’s proposal “ignores the safety risks posed by the current fleet” that will be in higher demand as more ethanol is blended into the nation’s fuel supply through 2022.

The “older” cars currently are on average eight years old, the NTSB said, with an estimated service life of 30 to 40 years, meaning they will still be in use for several more years while newer, updated tankers come online.

The Federal Railroad Administration made a point of singling out ethanol shipments in an Aug. 2 emergency order outlining a series of safety initiatives for securing trains following the accident in Quebec. The agency noted that since 2009 there have been four serious derailments involving ethanol: one each in Illinois and Montana and two in Ohio.

“Although these accidents were serious, their results had potential for more catastrophic outcomes” such as additional deaths, injuries and environmental damage, the Federal Railroad Administration said.

Concerns like these were at the center of a vigorous public campaign by activists from the Chelsea Creek Action Group near Boston. The association, which spent two years organizing the community and pressuring state lawmakers over a local energy company’s plan to transport ethanol through densely populated areas, said the shipments would pass through nearly 100 cities and towns within Massachusetts where some 200,000 residents live within a half-mile of the track.

Global Petroleum, a Waltham, Mass.-based energy company, withdrew its proposal in July following mounting pressure from the community group and passage of an amendment by the state Legislature that would prevent the storage of large amounts of ethanol near areas that are densely populated.

“This was a huge victory. It was two years organizing the community and doing a lot of activism to stop this proposal, and they felt that pressure,” said Jovanna Garcia Soto, a member of the group. “But this is not the end of the campaign.”

The amendment ran into a roadblock when it reached Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s desk last month. Instead, Patrick proposed a two-year moratorium on new routes of ethanol transport by rail and sent it back to state legislators for more work. Members of the Chelsea Creek Action Group fear they could have to fight the battle all over again in two years if Global Petroleum or another company makes another attempt to build the rail line.