Ethanol's Use Outstrips Plans to Deal With Its Risks

A view of the Norfolk Southern rail yard. Although Alexandria officials warn of possible dangers, Norfolk Southern points out that transporting fuel as far as possible by rail makes overall safety sense.
A view of the Norfolk Southern rail yard. Although Alexandria officials warn of possible dangers, Norfolk Southern points out that transporting fuel as far as possible by rail makes overall safety sense. (Photos By Dominic Bracco Ii -- The Washington Post)   |   Buy Photo

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By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 26, 2008

The national push to wean the country from imported fuel by adding American-brewed ethanol to gasoline has come at a cost: The flammable liquid is being transported through residential neighborhoods, catching off guard many communities that are unprepared to fight potential fires. Some are having to piece together emergency plans after the shipments have begun passing through their cities and towns, officials say.

In Alexandria, for example, officials are seeking to shut down or restrict an ethanol transfer operation in a rail yard surrounded by townhouses, a Metro station and an elementary school, arguing that pumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel daily from trains to tankers is potentially dangerous and a slap at city residents.

The loading operation, which began early in April, is part of a fast-growing national network that is moving billions of gallons of the fuel from rural areas to more populated regions such as the Washington area.

"By and large, fire departments have not been able to get the resources in place to address this particular hazard, which really is spreading," said Alexandria Fire Chief Adam Thiel.

There have been serious ethanol accidents. A 2006 derailment of 23 Norfolk Southern Corp. tank cars in New Brighton, Pa., sparked a fire that burned for 48 hours and forced the evacuation of seven blocks, according to federal safety officials.

And as the ongoing Alexandria controversy shows, sparring over regulations, aggressive moves by railroad companies and tardy responses by local officials can complicate safety efforts.

A company working with Norfolk Southern started unloading ethanol in the densely populated city of 140,000 beginning April 9. It wasn't until more than a month later that Alexandria firefighters acquired key tools they needed to extinguish ethanol fires, which, unlike traditional gasoline, can't be doused with typical foams. An emergency preparation exercise at an elementary school across from the loading operation did not take place until this month. The operation is near the Cameron Station neighborhood, not far from the Capital Beltway and the Van Dorn Metro stop.

Firefighters across the country face similar lags in preparation.

Last year, a tanker traveling from Baltimore to a processing facility in Virginia flipped in Maryland and spilled 6,800 gallons of flaming ethanol, killing the truck's driver and torching a half-dozen cars. The Baltimore City Fire Department did not have the right foam and struggled to put out the fire, which burned for hours. Crews from Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport eventually helped smother the flames.

"We did not have the appropriate foam on hand to quickly extinguish this fire," said department spokesman Kevin Cartwright.

Elsewhere, many responders face the same problem, fire experts said. Gas in much of the country is blended with ethanol, often in concentrations of 5 to 15 percent.

"I don't think they really understand the whole issue of the blended fuels and how they have to be ready to deal with it," said Timothy Butters, chairman of the International Association of Fire Chiefs' Hazardous Materials Committee and an assistant fire chief in Fairfax City.

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