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Somerville, State Have Little Control Over Ethanol 'Bomb Trains'

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is studying public safety in regard to freight trains carrying ethanol but has little control over the trains themselves.

Some Somerville residents fear what happened in Columbus, Ohio, could also happen here.

In Columbus, a freight train carrying ethanol derailed and exploded in July of 2012, causing authorities to evacuate a mile-wide area around the blast. One Columbus resident said it "looked like the sun exploded."

"The fireball was visible from like 10 miles away," said Somerville Ethan Contini-Field, who heard about the explosion from friends who lived in the Columbus area. People a quarter of a mile away "singed" their eyelashes, he said.

What's more, putting out flames from an ethanol explosion requires a special type of alcohol-resistant foam, which is, itself, environmentally hazardous. Besides, fire departments in the Somerville area don't currently have much of that foam. As Ned Codd from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation said, "There is a shortage of that material" in fire departments in and around Somerville.

Contini-Field and Codd spoke about ethanol trains at a public forum held at the Argenziano School Monday.

Through a confusing tangle of regulations and legislation, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation has been tasked with conducting a study into the impact on public safety of transporting ethanol by train through Somerville, Cambridge, Boston, Everett and Revere. Monday's meeting was about that study.

Ethanol headed by train to Revere

The state Department of Transportation is conducting the study because Global Petroleum Corp. has plans to expand its facility in Revere to handle shipments of ethanol, which is used as an additive to gasoline. (In fact, it's a Congressionally mandated additive to gasoline, which has riled some in the agriculture and food industries, because ethanol is produced from corn, a food product.)

Global's plans could send freight trains, each filled with up to 1.8 million gallons of ethanol, through Somerville, Cambridge, Revere, Boston and other communities two times a week.

But, as Codd said at the meeting, "State and local governments do not have any power to regulate freight by rail." Such regulation, which includes the shipment of hazardous materials like ethanol, is regulated by the federal government, he said.

Why is the MassDOT conducting a study about something it has no power to regulate?

That gets back to the above-mentioned confusing tangle of regulations and legislation. Global Petroleum is on the Cheslea River, which means its plans to construct an expanded facility need to be approved by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection as part of Chapter 91, "The Massachusetts Public Waterfront Act."

The state legislature, in 2012, passed a law saying the Department of Environmental Protection couldn't issue a license to Global Petroleum until the Massachusetts Department of Transportation conducted a study into ethanol trains and public safety—even though Chapter 91 has nothing to do with freight trains, and even though the transportation department and the cities whose public safety is being studied have no power to stop the trains.

That study is due on March 23. After that, the matter is in the hands of the Department of Environmental Protection, which must make a decision about Global Petroleum's plans based on Chapter 91, which is concerned with tidelands, rivers, ponds and traditional waterfront industries, not with freight trains.

Are the trains safe?

The study concluded that, despite the 2012 explosion in Columbus, and despite a 2009 derailment and explosion in Rockford, Ill., that killed one person and caused hundreds of homes to be evacuated, accidents involving ethanol trains are fairly rare.

Between 2008 and 2012, according to a presentation given Monday, there were 31 accidents in the United States involving the release of ethanol or unknown hazardous material, and in 2009, 0.0032 percent of ethanol shipments resulted in spills. That's a small percentage.

Shipping ethanol by freight is also safer than shipping it by truck on roads.

The study makes recommendations for improving safety. Those measures include maintaining railroad tracks to a "class 3" standard, keeping ethanol-train speeds slow, and working maximize the number of DOT-111 railcars built after Oct. 1, 2011, as those built before have thin shells that puncture during accidents, according to the Worcester Telegram.

The study makes further recommendations into the transport and storage of ethanol and into emergency preparedness.

That said, the recommendations, true to their name, are not binding.

Somerville resident Wig Zamore, who spoke Monday, said, "I don't exect a catastrophic accident." But if there were one, the aftermath would be messy, he said.

Who has the liability, and could the companies held liable cover their responsibility? he asked. "Their insurers would certainly be interested."

"How much foam do we need? ... We should already know that," he said.

"What changes have been made because of the environmental justice burden?" he asked, referring to the study, which maps out environmental justice populations near the proposed freight routes—there are several. "It's fine to have the map, but if no one does anyting about the map, what good is it?"

In regard to security for the trains, he said, "Anywhere a graffiti artist can get, a terrorist can get."

Anyone interested can read more about the study here and send comments to paul.nelson@state.ma.us.

More information

Ethanol 'Bomb Trains' That Might Travel Through Somerville Receive Nearby Opposition

Aldermen: Keep Your Ethanol-Filled Freight Trains Out of Somerville

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