Ethanol on the Tracks
Manufactured from corn and other plant materials, ethanol has been touted as the future of renewable energy. Its use in automobile and truck fuels is almost universal, with most gasoline in the U.S. containing ethanol blends. Another widely used ethanol-based fuel is E85, which contains up to 83 percent ethanol and can be used in flexible fuel vehicles specially designed for this fuel. Like other fuel types, ethanol must be transported from production facilities to blending and export terminals, which is primarily accomplished via the railroad system.
While the recent crude oil train disaster in Quebec placed the spotlight on the risks of petroleum transport, ethanol railcars also pose serious danger. Ethanol is a flammable, volatile liquid that can be extremely hazardous and explosive. Due to the huge volumes of ethanol being transported on a daily basis, and the millions of people in areas at risk in the event of derailments, ethanol disasters must not be taken lightly.
Recently, residents of Tampa narrowly averted a major ethanol disaster when a train carrying thousands of gallons of the fuel derailed. In total, 11 rail cars tipped, leaking ethanol and forcing the closure of the Port of Tampa for several hours. With 4,500 gallons of ethanol flowing from the cars, this derailment could have caused serious injuries and property damage. Thanks to the efforts of railroad workers, firefighters and hazardous materials crews the trains were righted and the spill was contained.
In a 2011 ethanol railroad spill in Illinois, crews were not as fortunate. In this case, 26 cars of a 131-car ethanol transport train derailed and caught fire, requiring the evacuation of nearly 800 people from the area. While a quick and thorough response minimized damage, the sights and smells of the ethanol explosion are memories that witnesses will not soon forget.
While railroads attempt to do everything in their power to prevent ethanol spills, preparedness is essential. Safety official and hazardous materials experts recommend the following measures in the event of an ethanol spill:
- Dig ditch lines in the surrounding areas to prevent the leak from spreading
- Employ vacuum equipment to collect spilled fuel
- Lock down surrounding areas immediately and promptly inform the authorities and public of impending danger
Train related disasters often leave major property damage and serious injuries in their wake. For those affected by such unfortunate events, a consultation with a legal expert in railroad disasters may be the first step on the road to recovery.