Traveling Inferno: Plans for Ethanol Trains Through Cambridge Placed On Siding Pending Safety Study

Traveling Inferno: Plans for Ethanol Trains Through Cambridge Placed On Siding Pending Safety Study

  • Posted on: 15 August 2012
  • By: stannenb

Governor Deval Patrick on Friday signed a transportation bond bill which, besides providing 1.5 billion dollars for infrastructure projects around the state, mandated a 6-month safety study of the transportation of ethanol by rail through Cambridge and surrounding communities. A proposal by Global Oil, a Waltham-based publicly traded energy company, would have brought two 60-car ethanol filled trains per week through tracks that pass through heavily populated parts of Cambridge and Somerville to its terminals in Revere. The Fitchburg commuter rails tracks, which would be used for these deliveries, are the site of a Wednesday morning derailment of a slow moving commuter train leaving the Belmont Station heading inbound towards Cambridge.

Global Oil has been working to develop a train route from ethanol production regions in the midwest to its terminals in the northeast and is currently running ethanol trains as far east as Worcester. If ethanol can be delivered to its Revere terminal, the ethanol can be blended with gasoline and distributed to Global's gas stations, sold to other distributors or shipped to other locations on the east coast. Ethanol, which was originally hailed as a renewable fuel, has become increasingly controversial as questions are raised about the energy required to create it, the federal subsidies involved in its production and, as drought has spread through the mid-west, its increasing use of America's corn production. Global Oil, in its required annual 10-K filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission, acknowledges that the ethanol market exists largely due to federal mandates and favorable tax treatment.

The proposal for rail transport of ethanol by rail has raised concerns in Somerville, Chelsea, Revere and Everett, as well as Cambridge. In March, the Cambridge City Council unanimously passed a an order expressing its opposition to these trains, calling ethanol a "hazardous material that is highly volatile, extremely flammable and a threat to public safety". The City Manager, in a report requested by this order, stated that the Cambridge Fire Department is equipped with the type of firefighting foam ethanol requires and that it would be prepared to handle any incident.

A July 2011 study [PDF, embedded below] performed for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection noted that there have been a number of large-scale ethanol spills. Because ethanol is highly flammable - more so than gasoline - some of these spills have resulted in fires. And, since these incidents have mostly occurred in rural areas, "most, if not all" of these fires largely been allowed to burn themselves out. This has limited the impact of runoff ethanol on the environment, as it is largely consumed by fire. If firefighting operations are required, the report recommends that efforts be made to recover water or foam used before it enters into soil or ground water.

While interstate commerce by rail is generally protected from state and local regulation, modifications to Global's facilities in Revere, located on Chelsea Creek, to accomodate the ethanol deliveries require a state license under Chapter 91 of the General Laws, provisions designed to protect public rights to the waterfront. The bond bill prohibits the state Department of Environment Protection from issuing a Chapter 91 license until the safety of the trains has been studied and gives the state Department of Transportation 6 months to complete that study. Under the terms of the MBTA's purchase of its commuter lines in the 1970s, Boston&Maine Railroad and its successors have the right to use commuter rail lines for freight deliveries. Pan Am Railways, B&M's successor, will operate the ethanol trains. Pan Am Railways is an investor in Cambridge's Northpoint, a 44 acre mix-used development on land which was formerly a Pan Am owned railroad yard.

Fitchburg commuter rail line as seen from Porter Square Station

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Ethanol Spill Impacts and Response 7 11


And did you know that fuel-laden jets are permitted to fly over residential areas? I guess it's all a matter of relative risk - just like trucks carrying hazardous cargoes traveling through city streets. I'll wait for the (relative) Safety Study before forming an opinion on the Ethanol Train.