Public safety and transporting ethanol

By Richard Jaehne | June 12, 2008

Every day, tens of millions of gallons of grain alcohol moves from biorefineries located in rural Midwestern communities to major population centers on both coasts–in tanker trucks on congested highways, train cars passing through town centers, and river barges docked in busy ports. And the amount of ethanol transported throughout the country will only continue to increase as interest in fossil-fuel alternatives grows. According to the Renewable Fuels Association, 151 biorefineries in the United States produce nearly 8.7 billion gallons of ethanol annually. Another 51 refineries are under construction and 7 are being expanded, all of which is projected to increase ethanol production by another 5 billion gallons annually.

But the ability of fire, rescue, and hazmat teams to understand and effectively respond to potential ethanol emergencies hasn’t grown with the industry’s ability to produce and distribute the product.

Ethanol presents firefighters with several unique challenges. For instance, ethanol fires cannot be put out with water; instead, they must be smothered with the careful application of alcohol-resistant foams. In addition, once the gasoline mixed into E-95 (95-percent ethanol, 5-percent gasoline) and E-85 (85-percent ethanol, 15-percent gasoline) burns off, the pure alcohol flame becomes almost invisible to the eye. Ethanol vapor is also flammable at a wider range of concentrations than gasoline, meaning any vapor will ignite more quickly. So if firefighters don’t bring the proper fire-suppression systems and techniques to an ethanol fire, they stand the risk of adding water and making the fire grow.

An example scenario: A class 306 tanker trailer carrying 9,000 gallons of ethanol overturns on a busy urban street, spilling, and catching fire. As captain of the fire engine that arrives at the scene first, you check the placard on the trailer to ascertain what it’s carrying. It reads 3475–a new number created for ethanol of any concentration over E-10. Training tells you that such a fire requires alcohol-resistant aqueous film forming foam (AR-AFFF). You have some 5-gallon buckets on your engine, but you must calculate the proper concentration and flow rate to determine the amount of foam needed. You must also contain the spill using special booms. You call for extra alarms and assistance to provide additional AR-AFFF and a hazmat team to stop the spill. Soon, an aircraft rescue fire truck from a nearby airport arrives. You ask the lieutenant on the truck if he has AR-AFFF. He says that he does, and you direct him to begin foam operations. But no one realizes that the aircraft rescue truck is carrying AFFF for fighting traditional petroleum-based aviation fuel fires instead of AR-AFFF, and the fire grows in direct proportion to the amount of water being applied with the foam. Eventually, adequate supplies of AR-AFFF arrive and the fires are quickly extinguished. But since it takes two or three times as much AR-AFFF to keep the fire out as it does to initially extinguish it, the engine remains on-site for the next several hours and continues applying the foam to keep the fire from reigniting.

This is not merely a hypothetical scenario. What I just described happened last year in Baltimore and is now a challenge in almost every U.S. fire department.

In the small Midwestern communities where ethanol plants are being built, fire-protection districts that traditionally protect hundreds of square miles face an even greater challenge. Often, they are staffed by volunteers and measure initial response times in tens of minutes. Nor do they usually possess the specialized equipment or training for ethanol or alternative-fuel emergencies.

When communities hold hearings on the proposed construction of a new ethanol plant, the discussion mostly focuses on business and environmental questions: Who will profit? Where will the biorefinery be located? How much water will it use? What are the incentives for and restrictions on construction? How will it impact taxes? Among the equally important questions not asked: What potential emergencies could befall this plant and the transportation avenues that support it? Is the local fire and rescue department equipped to respond to those emergencies? Who will provide the additional resources required to deal with the risks to the community posed by the plant?

To begin this conversation, let’s consider the alternative-fuel emergencies at each point along the ethanol production and supply chain:

Grain hauling. An average corn-to-ethanol plant produces 100 million gallons of E-95 annually, meaning 30 million bushels of corn move from farm and grain storage to biorefineries annually, largely on oil-and-chip rural roadways. This traffic is no longer confined to harvest season, but is year-round and around-the-clock. If these roads aren’t improved to handle sustained heavy traffic, they will quickly deteriorate and become hazardous to all traffic.

Production facility. A biorefinery has a complex set of risks and complications normally associated with industrial production. They include grain bin dust explosions, ethanol fires, chemical release, confined space, and high-angle rescue. Few, if any, rural fire departments are trained and equipped to respond to all of these risks. Regional and statewide mutual aid must be developed to provide adequate stocks of AR-AFFF and hazmat and technical-rescue response teams that often exceed local capabilities. During initial planning for plant construction, a decision to locate the plant at a site that ensures at least a half-mile buffer from all surrounding structures and population centers can give firefighters the time to bring adequate response capabilities to bear. Ideally, firefighters, the plant managers, and community leaders will form a close working partnership to build a comprehensive plan for response. In Pekin, Illinois, the home of one of the largest ethanol production facilities in the United States, such a partnership exists and the plant operates safely and effectively.

Transport. E-95 moves from ethanol plants all day, every day to oil terminals primarily by train (where it’s actually the number one hazardous material on the rails by volume) but also by truck and barge. Accidents do and will occur. Future catastrophic incidents such as the 1970 propane train explosion in Crescent City, Illinois or the 2006 New Brighton, Pennsylvania derailment that sent several blazing railroad tankers off a trestle into the Beaver River aren’t inconceivable. In both cases, first responders were able to evacuate citizens, but they didn’t have adequate capabilities to put out the fire. Seven- to eight-million gallon barges are also transporting large volumes of ethanol along all major navigable waterways. Fire departments, the rail industry, and waterway officials such as the Coast Guard must work together before an emergency occurs to understand how to protect human life and what they can and cannot effectively remediate. The Ethanol Emergency Response Coalition has helped, but further solutions will require community leadership and the commitment of additional resources.

Terminals. Terminals provide bulk storage for ethanol before it’s loaded onto tractor trailers and delivered to the pump. Terminals are also where E-95 is blended with gasoline to create E-85 and E-10. The mixing racks normally are protected by dry-fire suppressants such as Purple K. Any emergency in the tank farm involving a higher concentration than E-10 could potentially require thousands of gallons of AR-AFFF and a large volume of water.

Retail distribution. Underwriters Laboratories recently tested retail distribution pump standards, because no one is sure of the long-term impact of E-85 on the retail distribution system. While other nations have used ethanol fuels for years, each nation’s ethanol mix is different. For example, Brazil uses E-25 and E-92 and has documented long-term corrosion and polymer impacts.

Vehicles on the highway. Ethanol in 20- to 30-gallon fuel tanks still presents a fire-suppression problem greater than gasoline. Firefighters responding to personal vehicle accidents must contend with the possibility that ethanol could be present.

Each of the 30,300 fire departments in the United States must be trained and equipped to respond to ethanol emergencies today and to other alternative-fuel emergencies in the future. The Renewable Fuels Association, Ethanol Emergency Response Coalition, Energy Department, International Association of Fire Chiefs, Illinois Fire Service Institute, and fire-suppression product manufacturers such as Ansul are currently developing accessible online and hands-on training programs for ethanol emergencies. In particular, hands-on training allows firefighters to interact with the appropriate foams and fire suppression and containment systems. It also gives them exposure to ethanol transport, production, and storage facilities. Such a partnership between industry, elected local leaders, fire services, and researchers will ensure that public safety keeps up with the evolution and growth of alternative fuels in the United States.

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