Ethanol Trains Again

A new and contentious issue has rolled into Chelsea over the past two weeks like a freight train, except that the issues is exactly that – freight trains carrying the hazardous material Ethanol.

One week after the Chelsea City Council passed a somewhat controversial resolution opposing Global Oil Company’s plan to transport millions of gallons of Ethanol per year over the commuter rail tracks through Chelsea, City leaders have expanded their efforts by reaching out to other communities and by making further comments opposing the plan.

All of this is in advance of a public hearing sponsored by the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to be held in Revere City Hall tonight, Thursday, March 6th, to consider the Revere oil company’s Chapter 91 waterways license – though many from Chelsea and Revere are expected to show up to voice opposition to the overall Ethanol transportation plan.

And now, there might be several more communities showing up from as far away as Lincoln.

City Manager Jay Ash said his office and a number of Chelsea-based environmental activists and groups sent out last-minute notices to many cities and towns that could be affected by the Ethanol transportation program proposed by Global.

“There is no notification requirement for either the railroad companies or for Global and I wanted to make sure those communities the Ethanol trains would potentially travel through were aware that possibility exists and could comment on it if they wished to at Thursday’s public hearing,” he said.

Ash indicated that he reached out to at least a dozen communities, going out as far as Lincoln.

“Folks were surprised when I contacted them to hear of this and thanked us for the information,” he said.

Ethanol is a corn-based alcohol product that is, by federal mandate, required to be mixed with consumer gasoline products. It is known to be a volatile substance and has occasionally caused fantastic – and at times deadly – explosions in the Midwest when being transported by train. Ethanol loaded trains are also listed by U.S. Homeland Security as a possible terrorist target, causing a whole other set of alarms to sound.

While most Ethanol trains do operate without incident every day around the U.S., on some occasions trains have had accidents in which the Ethanol product has exploded in a chain reaction, causing great fires.

Most of those explosions have happened in remote, rural areas because typically Ethanol isn’t transported through dense, residential urban neighborhoods.

Global’s plan, however, would call for Ethanol trains traversing through residential areas on the commuter rail tracks in 25 cities and towns, including Chelsea.

The trains would come down the commuter rail line from Ayer/Ft. Devins during the night hours when the commuter trains are not running. It would pass through the western suburbs and into Boston, where it would then transfer onto the Chelsea line and end up in Revere, backing into the Global Oil terminal on Lee Burbank Highway.

No one is exactly sure what the plan is for bringing in such large quantities of the product. Many companies do ship Ethanol into the area by truck and by sea barge, but Global’s plan, by far, exceeds any quantities now coming in.

Each train would carry around 1.8 million gallons of Ethanol and there are expected to be at least two trains per week. Each tank car on the train holds 30,000 gallons.

Some believe Global will be using the Ethanol to blend much larger quantities of gasoline in order to supply a recent acquisition of hundreds of Exxon Mobile gas stations throughout New England.

Others, though, believe that Global might be looking at making its Revere facility the hub for Ethanol distribution throughout the Northeast – taking advantage of the new, larger Chelsea Street Bridge to ship out major quantities of Ethanol on the waterways to other facilities on the eastern seaboard.

At this point, Global doesn’t even have to tell the federal railroad regulators what they plan to do as the plan is just a proposal, and is protected as proprietary information related to business activity.

Revere Fire Chief Gene Doherty has been at the center of the proposal for about a year, and has taken the lead in organizing training and informing other neighboring departments – such as Chelsea. Firefighters have to go through training and receive specialized equipment because Ethanol fires cannot be extinguished with water, but rather with a special alcohol-resistant foam.

This week, at a meeting in Revere, Doherty said he doesn’t necessarily support the plan, but he believes that it is inevitable because of federal government mandates and Ethanol-friendly policies. Given that, he said he is preparing his and other departments as if the trains are coming.

Doherty has held to the opinion that it is much safer to have trains coming into Global than to have them transporting by other means – specifically by tractor trailer tank trucks.

Ash refuted that – and so did a number of environmental advocates – saying that trucks would probably be safer.

“I’m not so sure that line of thinking about trains being better than trucks is entirely accurate,” said Ash this week. “The capacity of a truck – if something were to happen – is only 5,000 to 10,000 gallons. It would certainly create a mess, it could cause a small explosion and perhaps some environmental damage, but it wouldn’t create the devastation 1.8 million gallons on a train would cause.”

Ash also said that he doesn’t believe these kinds of proposals belong in urban areas now that there are so many security concerns.

“I don’t think these kinds of things belong in dense, urban cities anymore,” he said. “We now live in a post 9-11 world and we have to think about where we site anything like this. If it has to come here, I would rather it came by truck or better yet by barge that can be guarded by the Coast Guard, rather than by unsecured railroad lines where any devious person could plant something in the dead of night when these things are passing through.”

In addition, environmentalists from Revere and Chelsea have submitted an op-ed to the Record this week urging people to come to the hearing.

“If there were a large scale accident at or terrorist attack on Global’s facility, the potential explosion would take us all out,” read the letter. “Businesses do have a right to conduct their business, but when it impacts on our public health, safety and environmental resources we have a right to ask questions, get honest answers, and have issues addressed appropriately.”

The public hearing at Revere City Hall will take place from 6-8 p.m. Global has indicated that they would like to begin shipments of Ethanol to Revere some time in 2012.

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