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.
Because ethanol mixes easily with water, firefighters must methodically apply a special alcohol-resistant foam to suffocate flames. Traditional foams on many trucks won't do. "You don't want to find that out on game day," Butters said.
Nationwide, 178 refineries can churn out almost 11 billion gallons of ethanol annually, mostly from corn, and billions more gallons a year are headed for roads and rail lines across the nation. Because of its composition, ethanol can't flow through existing fuel pipelines.
After arriving in Alexandria, ethanol is piped from tank cars parked on the tracks to waiting trucks using a type of industrial umbilical cord, a process called transloading. The trucks are driven to two tank farms in Fairfax, one in Newington and another in the city of Fairfax, where they meet up with a gasoline pipeline that stretches to Texas. The ethanol is mixed with gas in vast tanks, then trucked to service stations, fueling the region.
City of Fairfax Fire Chief Tom Owens said many departments that have not spent years with a major tank farm in their midst are behind.
"It was not on the radar screen of most of the fire departments around here," he said. "The City of Fairfax is the exception."
The transfer operation in Alexandria has stoked a tense legal struggle between city officials and Norfolk Southern and has spurred congressional scrutiny of rail laws. It has also left a trail of political acrimony. After withering public criticism, Alexandria officials in recent weeks have called for an outside audit of the city staff's handling of the issue.
Alexandria authorities now want the operation closed, or, failing that, subject to tight local restrictions, saying it should never have been opened in a residential neighborhood. Council member Ludwig P. Gaines (D) said this year that the railroad giant is "like the neighbor that moves into the vacant house and turns it into a crack house."
Top city officials, including Mayor William D. Euille (D), had meetings with Norfolk Southern executives about the company's plans starting in 2006. They did not notify residents or discuss it publicly, mistakenly concluding that Norfolk Southern would automatically be required to apply for city approval before opening.
Euille blamed city staff.
"The bottom line is there was a lack of communication and accountability on the part of senior staff," Euille said. He said he didn't sound an alarm himself because he thought Norfolk Southern would be back seeking permission, and he didn't follow up because he meets with a parade of executives talking about would-be projects.
"It's not my job full time to manage those inquiries and those matters," Euille said. "That's why we have a full-time city manager and attorney and fire chief and others."
Steve Mason, special assistant to the city manager, said, "We failed to notify the community, and we failed to notify the City Council of this situation."
Beyond the legal and political ramifications are concerns about safety, especially among the thousands of residents who live in the Cameron Station community that sprouted by the tracks in the 1990s.
"A large spill could send burning flammable liquids with an invisible flame and no smoke down the waterway next [to] Cameron Station, under Eisenhower Ave. and the Beltway," Alexandria Fire Capt. Michael Cross wrote in an internal e-mail last year.
Thiel said that is a worst-case scenario, and that a smaller spill or fire in the yard itself is the more likely danger. "We feel pretty strongly it's a terrible location, and they should find a different one," he said.
Although Alexandria officials warn of the possible dangers to their constituents, Norfolk Southern and many experts point out that transporting the fuel as far as possible by rail makes overall safety sense because accidents happen more often on roads.
"We firmly believe that the systems and procedures we have in place make any risk to the community extremely remote," Norfolk Southern spokeswoman Susan M. Terpay wrote in an e-mail. She cited a catch basin-type set-up to keep spills contained and other safety measures. The company has also agreed to pay tens of thousands of dollars for safety equipment.
Alexandria officials, however, have taken their concerns to federal regulators, who have yet to issue a ruling. The two sides are also in court.
Long-established laws give railroads broad powers to move freight across state lines, including the authority, in most cases, to load and unload what they want with little or no deference to local officials.
For now, the view from the barbeque-dotted balconies of Cameron Station, across a flood-control channel from the rail yard, now includes a steady stream of large-scale ethanol transfers.
"The government's only job is to inform and protect residents. They didn't do either one here," said Ingrid Sanden, president of the Cameron Station Civic Association. "You can always fight something before it's built a lot easier than you can afterward."
Sanden's daughter Maddy, 5, attends the adjacent Samuel W. Tucker Elementary School. A gate was recently cut in a nearby wooden fence for a possible student evacuation.
"It doesn't look scary, outside of the black tankers sitting there. But the potential is there," Sanden said. "There's always human error, and there's always acts of God, and we're not willing to take that risk."