Ethanol Study Makes Recommendations

After the state’s Ethanol Transportation Study was unveiled Monday night in Chelsea, one thing was quite apparent:  there’s not much that can be done to stop anything coming through on the railroads.

What can be done is pretty straightforward and limited.

Certainly, one thing that can be had is a robust public discussion – which has been going on for the better part of two years. And the other thing that can be done is to prepare like madmen, which was suggested in not-so-certain terms throughout the newly released report.

Facing a proposal by Global Petroleum of Revere to ship in large volumes of Ethanol via the commuter rail tracks, state officials last year commissioned a study by the state Department of Transportation (DOT) into the Ethanol issue within the confines of Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Chelsea, Everett and Revere. It is the first time that Ethanol trains will have ventured into the densely populated eastern part of the state.

After several public meetings and a great deal of discourse – much of it by disenchanted residents of the area – the DOT unveiled its draft study Monday at the Chelsea Collaborative in Chelsea. An audience consisting of people from Waltham to Charlestown to Somerville to Chelsea and Revere were in attendance. Many of those in attendance were not completely satisfied with the report, nor were they happy with the helplessness of the situation – as rails are primarily controlled by the federal government, and even it cannot do much to stop hazardous material transport.

“We’re not ready,” said Mark Pare of the state Department of Fire Services, a member of the study committee. “I mean, this is new. We’re ready in small doses. You plan for a car or truck accident and fire, but not a 100-car rail train.”

And so that was why one of the major recommendations in the study – which is largely informational and does not carry any enforcement powers – was to secure more alcohol-resistant foam. That product is necessary to fight an Ethanol fire, as water does not work in putting it out.

“The Massachusetts Fire Services should work with the City fire departments and other emergency personnel to analyze the regional capabilities needed to battle an Ethanol train fire, including the amount of alcohol resistant foam that would be required,” read the recommendations. “A plan should then be developed to put those capabilities in place.”

Another concern brought up in the report was the accessibility of the commuter rail tracks, many of which are under bridges or in protected ditches.

Another recommendation was to identify critical facilities along the potential routes and develop emergency response plans – a task dumped on the local fire departments in the various cities. It was pointed out that one of those facilities near the tracks is the MIT Nuclear Reactor in Cambridge.

The study also recommended that Global work with local communities on safety and security planning, making sure to address community concerns. Likewise, Global is recommended to update its facility’s security plan to address the risks of storing and offloading Ethanol at the terminal.

Put together, there were eight recommendations for the transportation of Ethanol, three for the storage of Ethanol, and six for emergency responses to Ethanol.

However, most of the report indicated the things that cannot be done.

It cited the fact that the courts have routinely shot down attempts to limit the railroads through zoning, and it also pointed out that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is mostly in charge of investigating safety procedures. Much of that, due to security concerns, is never made public.

For example, any safety and security plan developed by Global for a potential Ethanol train shipment would not be available to the public for scrutiny.

Another important piece of the study indicated current Ethanol shipping practices in the state – indicating that hundreds of trains already run incident-free through the western and central parts of Massachusetts. Currently, most Ethanol trains travel hundreds of miles from the Midwest. They go on the CSX line to Worcester and then down to an off-loading facility in downtown Providence. From there, the Ethanol is shipped to Boston by barge – where most of it comes down the Chelsea Creek to petroleum companies like Global.

That was a fact that has been missing up to now, and it appears that the company is looking to extend the train trip to Boston and eliminate the need to go to Providence – as well as the need to send barges up to Boston.

The two-hour discussion, though, was brought home by one simple question asked by an audience member, “Who can stop this?” he asked.

It was a simple question that wasn’t easily answered, and one that the study did not address.

In all, the study identified 191,992 people in the six cities who are living within the half-mile evacuation zone – a zone that would be mandatory if there ever were an Ethanol-induced rail car explosion. Some 27,216 of those people live in Revere, while 31,119 live in Chelsea. Almost all of the east side of Revere is in that zone, while most every part of Chelsea – minus Prattville – is included.

Public comments are accepted via e-mail ( HYPERLINK “mailto:[email protected][email protected]) until Thursday, March 21st. The Final Report will be delivered to the Senate and House Ways and Means Committees on March 23rd.

The full report is currently available online at

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