Proposed Ethanol Trains Irk Council, City Officials

For nearly a year, ethanol trains have been a serious subject for discussion in Revere, but so far they haven’t entered much into the dialogue within Chelsea even though the potentially dangerous trains could be passing right through the heart of the city in just a year’s time.

Advocates in Revere have gone so far as to put a non-binding ballot question up for a vote in last November’s election. The large freight trains that are proposed to travel through many communities on the commuter rail – including Chelsea – and end up in Revere at the Global Oil Terminal, were decidedly rejected in that Revere vote.

Now – in advance of a state public hearing to be held in Revere City Hall on March 8th – the Chelsea City Council and City Manager Jay Ash have prominently entered the discussion in passing an Official Resolution Monday night that rejects the idea of bringing ethanol trains through Chelsea to Revere.

Such a resolution hasn’t even been passed in Revere, though advocates have called for it more than once.

The Chelsea resolution passed on Monday night by a vote of 9-2, with the two negative votes coming because those councillors felt they needed more time to look into the issue.

“We’re concerned about the safety aspects really more than anything,” said Council President Leo Robinson. “It would be passing by the school and that is a major concern to us.”

Ash said his wing of the city government is also standing tall against Global’s plan.

“Chelsea City government is very much against it,” he said. “We’re concerned about the potential circumstances that an accident or a terrorist attack would have.”

The ethanol train plan by Global Oil – which is situated on Lee Burbank Highway just across the Creek in Revere – has been one of the most under-the-radar plans proposed in the area over the last year. Concerned citizens and environmental advocates believe the idea could be one of the greatest issues facing the Chelsea and Revere area.

The plan came into focus about 10 months ago during a Conservation Commission meeting in Revere, where numerous activists from Chelsea and East Boston rose in opposition to the plan.

That meeting ignited a fire in Revere, and that community seemed to take the lead in bringing light to the measure.

The Global plan calls for two, 60-car trains loaded with Ethanol – an alcohol based fuel made with corn that is added to gasoline – to pass through Chelsea each week. The freight trains – operated by Norfolk Southern and Pan Am Railways – would navigate on the commuter rail during the night when commuter trains are not running. The operation would amount to more than 187 million gallons of ethanol passing through Chelsea on the commuter rail every year.

After arriving from the Midwest, the trains would start their journey in Albany and travel across western Massachusetts to a railroad hub in Ayer/Ft. Devins. From there, the trains would switch to the commuter rail tracks and proceed through the western suburbs of Boston – finally passing through Boston, Everett and Chelsea before finishing the journey in Revere. Once there, trains would back into the Global Terminal for unloading and be off the tracks before the first morning commuter rail run. Each train would contain a minimum of 60 tank cars, each filled with 30,000 gallons of Ethanol.

Ethanol is federally-required to be blended with gasoline – a 10 percent mixture in Massachusettts – and Global does blend Ethanol with gas on its site. Currently, they bring in Ethanol by truck or by a water barge. However, they do not currently bring in anywhere near the same amounts that are proposed to be brought in by freight train, causing some postulation that they also plan on shipping out Ethanol to foreign countries from their site.

Through an agreement with the commuter rail from the 1970s, the railroad has the exclusive right to use the commuter rail for freight train traffic.

While other Ethanol Trains pass through the state regularly, this is the first plan that would have them operate in a dense urban area and with a final destination point in eastern Massachusetts.

Perhaps the most eyebrow-raising thing about the plan, according to city officials and activists, is the numerous Ethanol Train explosions that have occurred in other areas of the country. Because Ethanol is a hazardous material that is very volatile and extremely flammable, many trains that derail or get struck by lightening end up exploding into fantastic balls of fire. Videos and news footage of these explosions are enough to make a person stop and think. Some of the explosions have killed bystanders and have forced the evacuation of hundreds of neighboring homes.

Global officials and Fire Chiefs both near and far – including Revere’s Chief Gene Doherty – have said that they believe the trains can be contained and that with careful planning, fire officials can be ready for anything.

Most of the explosions have occurred in extremely rural, remote areas, and they are typically controlled and allowed to burn out over a period of several days.

“Most of those explosions are in remote, hard to get to areas,” said Doherty in a previous interview last year. “First responders cannot get to those explosions quickly and so they get bigger and bigger. I believe we would be able to respond very fast and to contain any accident before it spreads.”

Concerned citizens point out that even a quick response would not be enough in a place like Chelsea. They point to the fact that if there were an accident on the tracks with Ethanol, the dense population in Chelsea could prove to be a deadly combination – like a bomb going off.

To add to the concern, Ethanol Trains have been classified by the federal Department of Homeland Security as a possible threat for terrorist attack – especially at train intersections or during unloading.

At-grade intersections, of course, are of a major concern for Chelsea, which has no fewer than five of those types of railroad crossings in the city.

Ash said it’s hard for him to understand why anyone would be a proponent of such an idea – especially for dense urban areas like Chelsea, Everett and Revere.

“I have spoken with state and federal officials about it to reflect my concerns  and I don’t quite understand why, in this post-911 age, we continue to suggest we’re concerned about Homeland Security and we have a process by which something like this can occur,” he said. “I’m not saying it will be the subject of an attack, but it does concern me. Why would you want to allow 1.8 million gallons through a dense community all at once? This will be passing directly by hospitals, senior centers, schools and other buildings of concern.”

Ash and others in City government will be expressing those ideas at the March 8th public hearing, which will be conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and will officially concern the granting of a Chapter 91 Waterways license (since the project at the terminal would be located next to the Creek).

“We’ll be there and communicating these ideas at the upcoming public hearing,” said Ash. “I would say my preference would be to have that Ethanol barged in to the site if it has to go there. Even then, I don’t think it’s a good solution.”

Sidebar –

In what was somewhat of an unexpected break from the majority, Councillors Clifford Cunningham and Christopher Cataldo voted against the Council Resolution Monday night that recorded the Council as opposed to the Global Oil Ethanol Train plan.

However, those two councillors told the Record that there was a specific reason they voted against the matter, and it wasn’t because they approve of the plan. In a written statement representing both of them, they said it was because there hadn’t been enough time allowed to study the issue before calling for the vote.

“Our vote against the Council Resolution on Ethanol shouldn’t be interpreted as a vote for Ethanol but, instead, a vote against the process by which Council can sometimes hastily propose and take action on important matters without all of our members having time to thoughtfully and extensively review and research the issues,” read the statement. “We will do the thoughtful and extensive research now and will likely find ourselves in agreement with the rest of the Council that we should oppose train shipments of Ethanol through Chelsea.  We have more than a week to make that determination, though, so there was no need, in our opinion, for a rushed decision last night when there is ample time for us all to complete that review and research and then sign a letter in opposition to the Global plan in time for it to be recorded at the March 8th hearing in Revere.”

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