By Joseph A. Curtatone
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)
Standard practice in an ethanol fire is to let it burn out – and hope for the best – because few have the resources to fight this highly flammable fuel. Now a company wants to use train tracks overwhelmingly used for daily MBTA commuters to instead carry ethanol through Somerville, within striking distance of our schools, homes, assisted living facilities and more. But we too are an area without the resources to battle an ethanol-fueled blaze, and as the most densely populated city in New England, we cannot risk the consequences of letting the fire burn out.
Global Partners LP, which currently ships ethanol to this area by water, has applied for a state Department of Environmental Protection license allowing the company to transport ethanol by rail to its terminal on Route 1A in Revere, putting priority on company profits over public safety. The trains would travel through nearly 100 Massachusetts communities, and all three potential routes evaluated by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation under this plan run through Somerville. At least twice a week, these mile-long ethanol trains would travel through Somerville on railways almost impossible to secure over the long term, instead of using easily securable water routes from Albany supervised by the Coast Guard and isolated from people and property.
The U.S. Department of Transportation Emergency Response Guidebook recommends that an ethanol train be isolated for a half-mile in all directions, and that populations in that half-mile area be evacuated should there be an explosion. Besides homes, here is what lies within a half-mile of the three potential routes through Somerville: Ten schools, four assisted living facilities, nine hospitals or medical facilities and 70,480 Somerville residents. There is no option on the table that would not put Somerville schools, senior housing, medical facilities or nearly our entire population at risk from an ethanol explosion.
Transporting ethanol is not the same as transporting gasoline through densely populated areas.
Gasoline has a narrow range of flammability, but ethanol is able to ignite in both lower and higher concentrations than gasoline, even including conditions where oxygen is not readily available to fuel flames. Ethanol can conduct electricity resulting in explosions. Even its vapor easily ignites. Burning gasoline emits thick, black smoke, but ethanol burns without visible smoke in a virtually invisible blue flame, creating an almost undetectable threat to first responders and bystanders.
Ethanol fires are also much harder to fight. Responding to an ethanol fire requires the use of alcohol-resistant foam, of which there is an inadequate supply in our area. A review of the number of foam-capable response units in the region and their capacity shows that the foam capabilities in the region are not sufficient to contain an ethanol-fueled fire, even one involving as little as one ruptured rail car.
A March MassDOT report recommended purchasing four foam tender trucks carrying a total of 12,000 gallons of foam. Currently there are only 5,500 gallons of alcohol-resistant foam available in the area: 500 gallons each in Chelsea, Revere and Everett. The remaining 4,000 gallons of foam currently available are all the way down in Braintree.
Who would pay for purchasing the equipment required to effectively battle an ethanol fire? Who would address public safety issues such ensuring that the junctions where the ethanol trains would travel are maintained to high enough standards? The MassDOT report noted that funding continues to be cut at all levels of government. “The only way to address this issue is through a collaborative effort that involves all of the parties involved. Each has its own resources, either manpower or funding, to contribute to the safe transportation of ethanol by rail,” the report said. In other words: Good luck communities. You’re on your own.
Even if the region were equipped to handle an ethanol fire, a MassDEP report notes that most significant fires caused by ethanol have been allowed to burn. For example, in 2011 in Arcadia, Ohio, a town with a population of 590, a massive ethanol fueled fire was allowed to burn for several days. We do not have that option in a city of almost 80,000 people. In 2009 near Rockford, Ill., an ethanol fire led to one motorist killed, nine injured and an evacuation of 660 homes. That fire was allowed to burn for 24 hours.
Of the more than 70,000 Somerville residents living within the half-mile “isolation” zone, 38,136 live within environmental justice zones. These are Somerville residents who already shoulder a disproportionate burden of the environmental impacts caused by industry. Neither they, nor the rest of us should bear this unnecessary risk.
Yet because federal laws govern railroad operations, neither the Commonwealth nor Somerville or any other community can require any additional security or safety measures of either Global Partners or the railroads. However, the state Senate included in its approved budget an amendment filed by State Senators Anthony Petruccelli, Sal DiDomenico, Pat Jehlen, and Will Brownsberger that would bar the state from issuing a permit for any facility, located in areas with population density higher than 4,000 people per square mile, that stores or blends more than 5,000 gallons of ethanol per day.
Write to your state representatives and the governor. Tell them this amendment must be included in the final state budget. Ask them: Do you prioritize profits, or public safety?