Ethanol train gets stamp of approval from MassDOT

On March 27, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

Millions of gallons of ethanol may be passing through Somerville in the years to come.

Millions of gallons of ethanol may be passing through Somerville in the years to come.

By Harry Kane

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation has all but given the green light for an ethanol train to pass through Somerville, by releasing an impact study that outlines the proposed route. However, the confirmation depends on whether the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection will sanction the operation.

The notion of freight trains carrying hazardous material through Somerville has activists and residents outraged about a hypothetical accident that could occur from a derailment.

Millions of gallons of ethanol would be expected to pass through Somerville every year. Opponents of the ethanol freight trains have dubbed them “bomb trains.”

Rep. Denise Provost (D-Somerville) shared her disapproval of the transportation risks associated with the volatile commodity. “What’s happening, in my view, is that a terrible and dangerous proposal is moving ahead with inadequate oversight,” she said. “I would speculate that people are feeling justifiably alarmed.”

The ethanol train would travel along Pan Am Railways – a combination of several MBTA lines – ending-up at Global Petroleum, the coastal oil facility, located on Chelsea Creek in Revere. This expected rail route begins on the Fitchburg Commuter Rail Line and connects to the Haverhill Commuter Rail Line.

“Global Oil Company will receive all the benefits in transporting ethanol by train,” said Ellin Reisner, president of Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership. “But the cities and towns and its residents will receive all the risks.”

Existing MBTA tracks would serve as railways to transport the ethanol trains through urban communities. Along the potential ethanol rail route, 14 schools are within a half-mile of the red zone radius, as well as many nursing homes, businesses and residential neighborhoods.

State legislators gave the Massachusetts Department of Transportation the job of conducting an impact study to access the safety risks. Yet, the DOT had no authority to shut down the ethanol train, even if they had determined the means of transport unsafe. Now the study is complete, and the future of ethanol by rail is contingent on the X factor: a “waterways license” known as a chapter 91 license.

“We’re in kind of a tough position,” said Paul Nelson, project manager at MassDOT. “We really don’t have any regulatory authority. All the legislation is at the federal level. We’re basically preempted from doing anything.”

Instead, it is Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection that will decide whether or not to allow the ethanol train to pass through Somerville and other communities. If the train is deemed safe, Global’s license will be amended, allowing them to upgrade their facility and transport ethanol by the proposed rail delivery.

Despite repeated attempts to contact Global Petroleum, The News was unable to reach a spokesperson for comment.

“Global must think it’s logistically easier and more cost-effective,” said Wig Zamore, a community organizer and Somerville resident. “There will be some noise and vibration disruption that will be of a real concern to residents who live abut,” he said. “The rest of the city probably won’t notice it, unless there’s an accident.”

Zamore explained that in the worst-case scenario, if a rail car is punctured, and an ethanol fire starts, firefighters would pump-out special chemical foam to cut off the fire’s oxygen supply.

“In a really dense city like Somerville or Chelsea or Cambridge, you can’t really let it burn out, because there’s a real danger of the fire getting to a house, school or senior center,” said Zamore.



17 Responses to “Ethanol train gets stamp of approval from MassDOT”

  1. Ray Spitzer says:

    This is disgraceful and there should be massive local opposition to it! At minimum, Somerville should charge the company a ton of money.

  2. Sue Ladr says:

    This article contains many errors, and doesn’t begin to address the seriousness of the problems.

  3. John says:

    What’s disgraceful? Two companies are exercising their legal rights to do business? Cry me a river. Towns need to realize they cannot limit what travels through them on the railroads. Never have, never will. Can you imagine how expensive goods would be and how interstate commerce would come to a craw if we could set zoning restrictions on railroads? You are just wasting our tax dollars with these studies and lawsuits.

    Somerville should charge who money? Global Petroleum is not in Somerville. If you mean the railroad, you already do charge the railroad (MBTA), they are called taxes.

    Get a clue.

  4. Steve Keenan says:

    You might want to read about the chemical spill off of Washington Street many years ago. I think it was in April of 1978 or 1979. I was there when I served on the Somerville Fire Department. It was nasty.

    I recall pulling into the scene that day. By the end of the day a bright red Chevy parked on Joy Street was white because the leaking chemical from the train car had eaten the red pigment out of the paint. The green shamrocks on my fire helment were not green by the end of the day and much of the piping on our apparatus turned green from the chemical.

    When I(and many other firefighters) arrived at the hospital, I noticed that the coins in my pockets were all green also.

    I believe the chemcial that leaked was phosphorus tri-chloride or something similar. It was bubbling as it rolled down the street and it burned any and all open skin areas such as the neck area.

    Could something like this happen again? I’d approach this latest proposal with caution.

  5. I own a Providence & Worcester Yahoo Group and see on Avereage 2 to 4 80 car unit trains travel through Lincoln, RI per a month. The trains carrying this stuff is much safer than having it be driven on the roads. The trains travel from Worcester, MA to Providence, RI. So far over the several years these train have traveled this route there hasn’t been any accidents. I live in a area where I can see the trains from my window from my apt. I feel alot safer seeing the Ethanol traveling by train than travering the roadways.

  6. Topbar Hive says:

    Simple, Just mandate — that each rail car “capable” of carrying hazardous material, MUST have an “on-board” fire/chemical/whatever suppression “system” for any spill/puncture/crash/etc, capable of negating any damage from a TOTAL release of the chemical/whatever. That way the spill/crash/etc will be “self contained” and will not “cost” the town/city/state/country/etc for suppression foam/retardant/whatever is needed… IF the rail wants to save money, it will have to spend a little first, to guarantee a save transit for all.

  7. j. connelly says:

    No, they do not charge taxes. B&M RR (Also under the name Guilford Industries), MBTA (the MBTA taxes each city/town an assessment fee on top of the fares) but they do not pay taxes, Churches, Tufts, Group Homes, etc. NONE of them pay as they are all listed as TAX-EXEMPT.

    The abundance of Union Square properties being taken by the mayor for the GLX (some of which will land in developers hands), will bring about that almost 60% of land in Somerville will be tax-exempt, the Curtatone Plan to aid Tufts & Developers into forcing more & more residents out of the city and meantime a few politicos will be getting rich behind the scenes. Still have not heard who gets the “Finder$ Fee$” for the multi million$ bond$ that the city float$.

  8. j. connelly says:

    The issue is that nobody has the right to jeopardize peoples lives. If the fuel companies cannot unload it all at once, then they should be mandated to build rail storage yards within their facilities. That way if the tank car blows they will be mandated to have proper fire suppresion equipment surrounding the storage yard to take care of it and innocent people will not be affected. Be thankful you can watch those tank cars go by cause when one of them blows you may not be around to talk about it.

    The railroads don’t care, they don’t pay taxes thus it isnt coming out of their pockets. The BOA should immediately pass an ordinance limiting
    the number of these tank cars stored in the Somerville rail yards and implement that the Fire & Police Depts have a paid watch (at the B&M’s expense) over the area as the rail yards are vast & wide open and could become targets.

  9. If anyone would like to get a day to day view on a typical railroad with ethanol movements and the great safety record thus far with all the unit trains check out and join my Providence & Worcester Yahoo Group At:

    It’s Free To Join. I feel that the ethanol is much safer on rails than they are on roads. 80 tank cars and 80 trucks which is safer. With all the vehicle accidents out there I would pick railroads for the safest transport per tank car.

  10. JD says:

    So, people are upset about nasty stuff on the rails? Ethanol is nothing compared to the chemicals that ride Massachusetts rails every single day, and HAVE since the 1800s.

    We in the Boston area have been without REAL railroading for so long, most people have no clue how it works. I wonder how the people of Chelsea would feel if they visited Chicago, or any other major rail hub. Or perhaps visited the Union Pacific’s lines. The truth is, things far worse than ethanol run over US rails every day. And with very few accidents. Look at all of the truck roll-overs that happen in Massachusetts ALONE, and compare that to the safety record of the railroads.

    As for railroads not paying taxes, THAT does not sound correct at all. Pan Am Railways is a PRIVATE company, and as far as I know, NOT tax exempt. In the old days, railroads supported half the towns in the USA, with NO financial help from the government. They helped pay for schools and infastructure through their taxes. Airports, on the other hand, sapped taxpayer money like crazy… and no doubt STILL do.

    And one last comment: if you don’t like living near the railroad, why did you move there in the first place?

  11. Alice Werner says:

    I have very bad vibes about this!

  12. John says:

    Wow, where to begin here?

    Steve, statistics show you’re more likely to get hit by a car than suffer from a hazardous material release in a train derailment. Can it happen? Sure… but highly unlikely. These trains will slow down to 10 mph or less when they enter the Somerville area going to the unloading facility in Revere. Each car is pretty much brand new and is double tanked. You really gotta get in a good pileup at a high rate of speed for a release, nevermind a significant release. As a fire fighter you should also know that Ethanol does not explode, it burns. The risks people are describing simply do not exist.

    Topbar – should that same mandate be applied to tanker trucks too? You know the propane trucks travelling your streets 15 feet from your house? At least the rail lines are well known and often times away from neighborhoods. See information above regarding inherit safety of rail transport. The companies involved often times go above and beyond the law and offer training and fire fighting equipment to local fire departments.

    J.Connelly – I respectfully suggest doing research before commenting, even on the Internet. Railroads have always paid taxes, and always will. Municipalities have for a long time enjoyed huge revenue for railroad rights of way. I am not sure where you read the opposite but it is patently false.

  13. j. connelly says:

    If you lived in Somerville in 1980 when the spill occurred you would know how dangerous this stuff really is.

    Several of the firefighters who were first on scene were forced to retire from the effects the fumes from this incident did to them. Read Chief Keenan’s comment and take his last SENTENCES
    (“Could something like this happen again? I’d approach this latest proposal with caution.”)

  14. John says:

    What “stuff?” You mean the phosphorus trichloride that leaked in Somerville in 1980?

    You’re comparing a chlorine based inhalation hazard to Ethanol? Try again. You would be better off comparing it to that jug of Vodka in your cabinet.

    Like I said, get all the facts before commenting. Scare tactics get old and you sound ridiculous.

  15. Elio LoRusso says:

    The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Proctection has the final say on the ethanol train coming thru our neighborhood. In my travels throughout the east Somerville neighborhood, the people are concerned about the ethanol train coming thru Somerville. In the days to follow, I believe that we as concerned citizens should stand up to the Mass DEP on calling them to deny permission. This is a serious matter for Somerville especially in Ward 1 where there is a school in walking distance to where the train will go by.

  16. j. connelly says:

    The firefighters who have experience dealing with this “Stuff” are more knowlegeable than the average citizens. Right now special training is going on at Massport (Logan) for firefighters from Somerville and other cities along the rail lines to teach them how to handle this dangerous “stuff”. So “John” smarten up and think about any Ethanol stock you may own.

  17. SomMom says:

    I Googled “ethanol train derailment” and found numerous stories; below are the headlines about 5 separate derailments that took place mostly in rural areas, but one on the outskirts of Columbus OH. I don’t know if website links are allowed in comments, but if you want to see some pretty scary pictures or videos of ethanol fires, Google # 2 and #4 below.

    These are NOT trains I want moving through a densely populated area.

    1. Small town in Illinois Oct 2011:
    “Small town lit up by explosive early morning train derailment” (Chicago Tribune), Oct. 2011

    2. Columbus OH, July 2012 (– scary video on US Today site and Fox News site)
    “Ohio freight train’s derailment causes blast” (July 2012) and Fox News “Shocking Video Shows Enormous Explosion After Ohio Ethanol Train Derails”

    From USA Today: “Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman, who later Wednesday visited a temporary Red Cross shelter set up for evacuees, said the accident could have been worse if it had occurred in an area where more people lived.

    “I’m grateful, in one respect as well, that this did not occur in a more populated area near more residents,” he said. “It very well could have. A mile up or a mile south. North or south, east or west. It could have been tragic in other ways as well.”

    And from Fox News on same crash: “One passerby said, “I had to ball up and cover my body because I almost felt like my skin was burning.”

    3. Mt Vernon, IL, Dec. 2012:
    “Ethanol leak stopped in train derailment in Mount Vernon (IL)” Dec. 2012

    4. Aberdeen, N.D. August 2012, “Train from Aberdeen involved in Montana fireball” —
    Great picture in the Aberdeen News of a fireball shaped like a mushroom cloud!

    5. Feb. 2011 Arcadia, Ohio, “Clean-up begins after ethanol train derailment”

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