The dangers of ethanol cargo

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August 20, 2014
By: Eric Larsson
Eric Larsson

Every day one or more trains transport at least 5 million tons of ethanol through the metro area, including through the Kenilworth Corridor — over a bridge between the Minneapolis lakes, through a residential neighborhood, along the planned Southwest LRT line.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) says ethanol trains are every bit as dangerous as the Bakken oil trains — they’re just as explosive and they carry their cargo in equally unsafe cars.  Obviously, the Metropolitan Council’s plan to run the planned Southwest LRT route and its electrical overhead wires only 10 feet away from them would greatly increase their danger. This should be of vital concern — not only to those living in the pinch-point of the Kenilworth Corridor, but also to anyone living anywhere along the route and all who plan to ride the LRT.

Unfortunately, the entire community has been blissfully ignorant of the dangerous cargo passing only feet from our homes. We only learned about it when the Met Council announced the SWLRT–Kenilworth route. We discovered that each tank car transports 100 tons of ethanol. Should a train derail tomorrow, it would likely erupt into a fireball, jeopardizing lives and property in a half-mile radius.

Because ethanol doesn’t float on water, but mixes with it, a spill into the Kenilworth canal would mean the lakes would have to be pumped dry. Meanwhile, the ethanol would mix with ground water, and enter into neighborhood basements, causing further risks of explosion. 

The USDOT National Response Team addresses this potential nightmare in its Quick Reference Guide.  For example, it recommends that fire departments facing such a disaster not pump water from the lake into their fire hoses, since it would likely contain the flammable ethanol. It calls for transport of ethanol to be on Class II or better tracks. (The existing TC&W track, which would run next to the SWLRT, is a Class III.) The NTSB recommends safe route-planning, proposing that the risks of an explosion on a given route be evaluated relative to the safety of the tracks. (The Met Council has not done this evaluation for the SWLRT.)

My concern is not needlessly alarmist. Freight train explosions and derailments are increasing. In April of 2014, the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) reported to the NTSB that from 2006 to 2013 there were 2 million total shipments of ethanol, with 226 cars derailing, 91 of them releasing ethanol. In the last seven years, there were eight derailments that resulted in ethanol explosions. This does not count numerous oil-train derailments; we remember last year's explosion at Lac Mégantic, Quebec, which incinerated half the downtown and took 47 lives.

This trend prompted the American Association of Railroads (AAR) and the NTSB to call for major safety improvements in tank cars, including higher standards, retrofitting, and phase-outs. But here in Minnesota the TC&W is lobbying heavily and effectively. It rallied the ethanol producers to defend its business model of transporting ethanol through the Kenilworth Corridor. At the last public meeting of the Minneapolis City Council, the TC&W’s ethanol cargo was referred to as an "agricultural product." 

Freight cars and Class III tracks are not the only problems. The RFA also pointed to track integrity, switching failures, inspection errors, maintenance problems, human error, and lack of communication between train crews.

The NTSB chairman, Deborah Hersman has said the Obama administration should take steps immediately to protect the public from potentially catastrophic train accidents even if it means using emergency authority. "We are very clear that this issue needs to be acted on very quickly," Hersman told reporters at the conclusion of a two-day forum the board held on the rail transport of oil and ethanol. "There is a very high risk here that hasn't been addressed."

But we needn’t look just to the federal government for help. A 2013 Massachusetts law prohibits the transportation of ethanol by rail in urban areas.  

Who in Minnesota is concerned with the danger of the ethanol trains?

Eric Larsson