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.