As ethanol shipments grow, safety remains a concern
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Surging U.S. ethanol production may force the industry to step up transport safety measures in the face of growing concern that communities are ill-prepared to deal with the volatile, flammable liquid.
Despite efforts to work with shippers to make sure cars are safely loaded and emergency responders know what to do if an accident happens, high-profile accidents in Maryland and Pennsylvania have sparked concern from government officials around the country that more needs to be done.
Ethanol cannot be transported through gasoline pipelines because of its corrosive properties. Instead, it moves thousands of miles by rail and truck -- often through residential communities and cities. In Washington D.C., a CSX Corp rail line sits just blocks from the U.S. Capitol.
So far, the railroad industry has resisted requests that it notify local officials of its ethanol transport schedule.
Last year, a tanker truck overturned in Baltimore, spilling 6,800 gallons of ethanol that ignited, killing the driver and burning nearby cars.
A 2006 derailment of 23 ethanol tanker cars from a Norfolk Southern Corp freight train forced hundreds of people from their homes in New Brighton, Pennsylvania, 38 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.
New Brighton Area Police Chief Charles VanFossan said the derailment missed a residential neighborhood by a quarter mile. The fire was so intense it melted siding on nearby buildings.
"Up until that actual accident we didn't know what was coming through here," VanFossen said, explaining the city was not prepared for a major accident.
Two years after the accident, VanFossen said he has not heard from the railroad about any safety improvements,
"We're a little bit better educated, that's about it," VanFossen said, noting better public awareness of evacuation procedures.
A spokeswoman defended Norfolk Southern's safety record and said this case was caused by an isolated track problem. The railroad has offered emergency-response training to the city.
GROWTH HIGHLIGHTS RISK
U.S. ethanol production will rise 19 percent to 10.75 billion gallons in 2009, according to the Renewable Fuels Association. Railroads are expected to ship nearly 200,000 cars loaded with ethanol next year, up from about 150,000 in 2008. That could balloon to more than 300,000 cars by 2010.
The ethanol industry says it has taken safety steps in conjunction with emergency officials, transportation companies and local communities to prevent ethanol shipping accidents and properly address any incidents that may occur.
"I'm not going to say there is no risk. There is always a risk," said Jim Redding, vice president of industry relations with the Renewable Fuels Association. "The risks are just being taken out of proportion."
The United States Conference of Mayors, among other groups, has asked the railroads repeatedly to follow a schedule to transport hazardous materials so cities can better prepare.
The industry has argued a few accidents should not be cause for concern, given the surge in ethanol shipments.
Ethanol is now considered the top hazardous commodity transported by rail, according to the U.S. government.
The rail industry has balked at the idea of publicizing its schedule, and instead said communities can prepare for an accident by making sure they have sufficient safety precautions in place such as the right personnel and equipment.
"It's really not practical" to share your schedule because freight trains generally do not run on fixed timetables, said Mark Maday, manager of hazardous materials with Union Pacific Corp, the No. 1 U.S. railroad.
"And there also is a security aspect of that. We don't want to be telling everyone when things are coming," he said.
A spokesman with the Federal Railroad Administration said there have long been safety measures in place to ensure employees are trained to load and unload ethanol.
Despite measures taken to improve safety measures and quell public uneasiness, the industry has acknowledged more work needs to be done.
"I understand where they are coming from," said Redding with the Renewable Fuels Association, referring to concern from local communities. "It says to me we haven't done enough of educating or giving them the right information, and that's what we're trying to work on."