Economy

Ethanol industry pushes back on rail safety improvements

National Transportation Safety Board investigators examine tank cars damaged in a derailment in Columbus, Ohio, on July 11, 2012. One tank car shows signs of a thermal tear sustained in the post-derailment fire. The car was carrying ethanol, which eventually burst through the tank wall, sending a fireball hundreds of feet into the air about a mile from downtown Columbus.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators examine tank cars damaged in a derailment in Columbus, Ohio, on July 11, 2012. One tank car shows signs of a thermal tear sustained in the post-derailment fire. The car was carrying ethanol, which eventually burst through the tank wall, sending a fireball hundreds of feet into the air about a mile from downtown Columbus. Special to McClatchy

Ethanol producers are pushing back hard against new rail safety rules after a federal study found that ethanol poses hazards equal to or greater than crude oil in rail transportation.

An analysis of tank car damage in derailments published last month by the Federal Railroad Administration found that tank cars carrying ethanol were 1.5 times more likely to explode when exposed to fire for prolonged periods. The Renewable Fuels Association dismissed the report, blaming track defects for the explosions.

But even as the rail and petroleum industries settled this week on a new tank car design to improve the safety of transporting crude oil by rail, the ethanol industry, which uses similar tank cars, says the safety benefits of the improved cars don’t justify the cost.

“Regulatory priorities should focus on preventing the derailments,” said Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association.

The public comment period for new rules intended to improve the safety of rail shipments of flammable liquids ended Tuesday, and the U.S. Department of Transportation would like to make the rules final by year’s end.

In comments filed late Tuesday, Dinneen’s organization, the ethanol industry’s principal advocacy group, argued that ethanol is less volatile than crude oil and regulators shouldn’t treat them the same.

“Ethanol should not be included with volatile crude oil when considering rulemaking for tank car packaging designs or timelines for those designs,” he said.

The original push to improve tank car safety, however, came after a string of derailments involving ethanol. One, in June 2009 in Cherry Valley, Ill., killed a motorist waiting at a road crossing. The National Transportation Safety Board had been warning for years about the poor performance of the DOT-111 tank car in derailments, and in its report on the Cherry Valley accident, the NTSB again called on federal regulators to improve the design.

The Federal Railroad Administration analysis examined 16 rail accidents going back to 2006 involving the DOT-111 tank car, which has a thin steel shell that lacks protection from punctures or fire exposure. In nine of those accidents, the agency compared cars carrying ethanol and crude oil that were not compromised when they derailed but failed in the fire that followed.

It looked at two different types of damage on those cars: thermal tears, which can send liquid and vapor hundreds of feet in the air in a huge fireball; and separations, in which the tank shell blows apart, scattering pieces across the landscape like shrapnel.

The agency’s report found that crude oil and ethanol were almost equally likely to cause thermal tears. Separations only occurred in cars containing ethanol.

“The data suggests that denatured alcohol may pose a greater risk of explosion than crude oil,” wrote Karl Alexy, staff director at the Federal Railroad Administration’s Hazardous Materials Division of the Office of Safety, referring to ethanol transported by rail. Denatured alcohol is ethanol made unfit for human consumption.

In its report, the Federal Railroad Administration identified the separations as “higher energy events.” They took place in Arcadia, Ohio, in February 2011, and Plevna, Mont., in August 2012.

In Arcadia, about 50 miles south of Toledo, tank car pieces were blasted 300 feet away from the derailment site. In Plevna in eastern Montana, about 25 miles west of the North Dakota border, one car split into three sections, according to a local fire chief, with two sections landing 400 feet from the track. The area is sparsely populated, and no one was injured.

The age of the cars wasn’t an issue, the railroad agency report found: Eight of the 11 most severely damaged cars in the two derailments were built between 2003 and 2008.

On May 12, ethanol producers told Transportation Department officials that their product didn’t explode, according to a summary of the meeting.

“That doesn’t sound right,” said Chuck Lee, director of Disaster and Emergency Services in Fallon County, Mont., who was on scene after the Plevna wreck. “There was ethanol in the cars, and it exploded.”

In 2013, crude oil surpassed ethanol in number of carloads carried by railroads. The deadly derailment of a crude oil train in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in July 2013 shifted the focus away from ethanol. The disaster killed 47 people in the lakeside town when 63 cars of the oil jumped the tracks and breached their cargo, igniting massive fires.

Ethanol is currently classified for shipment at a hazard level below crude oil, and ethanol producers claim that they should be exempt from making the same tank car upgrades as petroleum producers. Railroads don’t typically own tank cars, and the companies that buy or lease them to ship their products would pay for the improvements.

The rail industry originally petitioned the rail administration’s sister agency, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, for a more robust tank car standard in March 2011, then adopted its own upgraded car that October. The agency didn’t initiate the formal rulemaking process until September 2013, two months after Lac-Megantic.

As part of the current effort to improve tank car safety, the leading rail and petroleum industry advocacy groups agree that tank cars carrying crude oil should have slightly thicker shells, thermal insulation and a steel jacket on the outside.

“The most important thing is thermal protection,” said Ed Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads.

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