Fight Against Ethanol Trains Takes Its Next Step

Fight Against Ethanol Trains Takes Its Next Step

If you thought the fight against ethanol trains was won, think again

An amendment to the proposed Commonwealth budget introduced by local legislators seeks to establish a 10 year moratorium on trains carrying highly flammable ethanol through densely populated areas of Cambridge and surrounding towns. While there is no current proposal to allow for ethanol trains, a legislative standoff stymied efforts to block the trains. And, in Washington, testimony this week by the American Association of Railroads calls safety standards adopted voluntarily in 2011 to be inadequate.

While federal law precludes state regulation of rail cargoes, in order to receive ethanol by rail, Global Petroleum needs to repair and enlarge the rail siding located at its blending facility on the shores of Chelsea Creek. Because the rail siding is located on that protected waterway, this construction requires a license under Chapter 91 of state environmental laws, the portion of the law that governs the building of structures on protected waterfronts.

When Global's plans first came to public attention, environmental organizers in Chelsea spearheaded an effort to require a safety study prior to any licensing for Global's facility. That study showed that communities along potential ethanol routes were unprepared for this sort of hazardous cargo, lacking both the special equipment and training to fight ethanol fires. The study also showed that an accident might require the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of residents. The study also noted that most rail cars did not meet the now outdated 2011 safety standard and called for modernization of rail car inventory.

After completion of the study, activists convinced the legislature to attach to the state budget an amendment to Chapter 91 forbidding the state to from issuing a license to any ethanol blending facility located near a densely populated area. After the budget containing the amendment passed, Global announced that they would no longer seek such a license. However, Governor Deval Patrick then vetoed the budget amendment, sending replacement language to the Legislature. No action has been taken on Patrick's proposed language.

Thus, despite a grassroots effort that convinced the Legislature to prohibit ethanol trains, state law remains unchanged. If Global were to change its mind and seek a license, the state would be under considerable obligation to grant it.

The amendment proposed, supported by representatives Timothy Toomey, Marjorie Decker, Jay Livingstone and others, would provide for a 10 year moratorium and for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) to develop a response plan for rail disasters. Most importantly, the legislation calls for MEMA to

include a methodology under which any entity transporting or receiving ethanol by rail shall be assessed to provide funding for the development of the response plan and the training, equipment and any other mitigation measures as recommended by the response plan. Impacted municipalities and agencies shall pursue federal grants as necessary in order to subsidize, to the extent feasible, the cost of the training and equipment recommended by the response plan. MEMA shall issue regulations to establish the means and methods by which it will assess entities transporting ethanol by rail to fund the development of the response plan and the mitigation measures recommended by MEMA in the response plan.

Without such a provision, local governments would bear the cost of safeguarding their municipalities, socializing the risk, while the profits remained in private hands. The amendment also requires the MEMA response plan to include the cities of Worcester, Springfield and Pittsfield, areas through which ethanol trains currently run.

Roseann Bongiovanni, Associate Executive Director of the Chelsea Collaborative asks that supporters of a ethanol moratorium:

  • Email her (roseannb@chelseacollab.org) your interest in signing a letter of support to be sent to the State Legislature asking them to pass this new ethanol legislation.
  • Call the Speaker of the House and state your support for the ethanol legislation. (617)722-2500.

Midwest Oil and Ethanol Boom Create New Focus on Rail Safety

Rail safety has become a focus of national attention as new energy sources in the midwest are increasingly relying on rail transport to bring their products to market. The New York Times, in January, reported that crude oil transportation by rail has increased forty-fold since 2008. Deborah A. P. Hersman, the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board told the Times that "[t]his is an industry that has developed overnight, and they have been playing catch-up with the infrastructure." Last July, a train carrying crude oil derailed in eastern Quebec, the resultant explosion and fire killing 47 and destroying 30 buildings in downtown Lac-Méganti. This was the 4th deadliest rail disaster in Canadian history and the most deadly since 1864.

The Massachusetts safety study called for ethanol transport to use rail cars manufactured after 2011, a year in which safety standards were voluntarily increased. But in n testimony to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB ) on April 22nd, Robert Fronczak, Assistant Vice President for Environment & Hazmat, Association of American Railroads stated the new voluntary standards, adopted by the industry in 2011, were no longer sufficient. Two January accidents, one in New Brunswick, the other Mississippi, have shown that cars meeting the post 2011 standard can be punctured during derailments. Despite industry agreement that new standards are necessary, there is disagreement among different interest groups about what those standards should be. Railroads, who typically don't own the tankers they transport, want thicker walls. Tank car manufacturers and energy producers don't want walls quite as thick as that lessens tank car capacity. With conflict over what an appropriately safe tank car should be, the lack of NTSB formal standards is slowing their adoption according to US Representative Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon).

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Image courtesy Roy Luck License: CC-BY 2.0.