Ethanol Transport Through Greater Boston Could Be Stopped Dead in its Tracks

Residents have pushed for a ban on transporting the flammable liquid by train through cities and towns around the state.

Photo via MassDOT

Photo via MassDOT

Hundreds of residents from Revere to Cambridge are signing a petition to keep a petroleum company from transporting ethanol by train through the heavily populated communities, citing the risk of explosion and “catastrophe.”

But the latest developments on Beacon Hill are finally putting some of their worries to rest as elected officials have pushed language through the Senate that could help stop the potential petroleum shipments.

Global Partners LP, which operates a bulk petroleum storage terminal in Revere, where ethanol, an extremely flammable liquid, and other fuels are held before distribution around New England, has been trying to get approval to start transporting ethanol via train, on MBTA-owned tracks. The change in transportation methods would require the trains to travel through nearly 100 cities and towns in the state, including Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Somerville, and Revere, essentially replacing the company’s current methods of transport by barge near the Chelsea Creek.

Residents like Roseann Bongiovanni, of Chelsea, have expressed concerns about the safety of shipping ethanol unit trains through the various cities, citing the potential for individuals to hijack the vehicles and use the explosive contaminants for a terrorist attack, or the risk of the train vehicle derailing, something that has happened in other states that ship large amounts of the gasoline-like liquid. “We have looked into this quite extensively and have seen a number of serious accidents in the Midwest, where trains have derailed and massive explosions have occurred and evacuations have had to happen,” says Bongiovanni, who’s the associate executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative, a non-profit group that rallies residents to fight certain causes. “This could be catastrophic for our state. When I was watching the marathon bombings, I was like ‘oh my God, some punk could do the same thing, they could know [the trains] are coming through our communities and they could target them’ … it would lead to massive, massive, massive explosions.”

Her fears were magnified recently when two individuals were arrested in Canada for trying to pull off a similar plot.

As communities all around Greater Boston have joined Bongiovanni in the fight against Global’s proposal, Twitter campaigns, like @NoEthanolTrains, have sprouted up as well as petitions from outraged residents following multiple community meetings.

In March, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation released a report commissioned by the legislature to look at the risks involved in the train transport option Global proposed.

Minka vanBeuzekom, a Cambridge City Councilor and one of the members of the task force that issued the report, called Global’s plans “short sighted” for safety reasons. “It’s a terrible idea. These are really dense environments. When the trains go through with this ethanol, in the Midwest, if there is an incident they evacuate maybe 100 people. If you had an incident in Somerville, you could be evacuating 50,000 because you evacuate in a half-mile circle just to be safe,” she says.

In order to change their method of transport from water to train, however, Global needs to make improvements to its facility, including adding the tracks to their headquarters and obtaining a Chapter 91 license from the state. The report issued by MassDOT was the final piece standing in between the company and that license.

But to Bongiovanni’s comfort, Senate leaders added an amendment during budget deliberations on Thursday night that would essentially “nix” the track transport option if it’s pushed through and eventually signed by Governor Deval Patrick. “The Senate voted on the budget that facilities such as this, within half-mile of 4,000 or more residents, and accepting 5,000 or more gallons of ethanol per week, should not receive a Chapter 91 license—so basically they would deny their license,” says Bongiovanni. “I’m super grateful for the work the senate has done, and I’m positive it will get passed. My hope has been for the past year or so that Global would open its eyes and say it isn’t all about the money and withdraw their proposal.”

It may not end there, however. While things look favorable for Bongiovanni and other concerned residents, vanBeuzekom expects it won’t be the last word from Global. “Even if the legislature agrees to add the language so the license isn’t granted, I am sure we won’t hear the end of it. But there is no one I have talked to that thinks it’s a good idea,” she says.

  • Sue Ladr

    When we learned that Global Oil was planning to expand its facility along Chelsea Creek and bring in ethanol by trains through the middle of Chelsea — mile-long trains with 60 tank cars of ethanol, as much as 3 times a week — we felt it was too dangerous to bring it through densely populated neighborhoods, where, in the event of an accident, evacuation would be almost impossible. Ethanol is highly flammable, and the train cars used to transport it are easily punctured. Accidents with these old train cars, even at low speeds, have caused immense fires and forced evacuations of residents within a mile of the train. Fortunately, these accidents have occurred in rural areas so far. But with the increased volumes of transport, and through the middle of highly populated areas, who knows what the destruction would be in the event of an accident. It also represents a financial burden on the communities who must invest in special training and material to fight an ethanol fire, which is only spread by water. (Usually these fires are left to burn themselves out because the substance used to fight them is highly toxic.)

  • Rich

    I’m sure the trains could be operated safely through Boston if they are restricted to 10MPH and protected by security patrols.

    I think a unit train in many ways would actually be safer than hundreds of tanker trucks doing the same thing on city streets.

    You can’t stop Interstate Commerce which this is. Just make it as safe as possible.

  • Nope

    Billions of gallons of ethanol move by rail through major cities every day. Rail is the safest method of shipping period, and this is only compounded by the amount of liquid shipped. The arguments against rail are irrational, fear based, and nimby driven.

    If you really want to stop these trains, stop driving your car, and there goes the whole demand for the stuff in the first place. If you’re going to drive your car around all la-ti-dah you should pay the price of economical, safe, reasonable, and non-intrusive shipping methods.

    You can always go fight gas stations, which house thousands of gallons of flammables beneath them, in dense residential areas…

  • PGarrity

    Since learning of the proposal to ship large quantities of ethanol by train using the commuter rail lines through the Boston area, I have learned that no single federal agency has oversight of this method of shipping ethanol. Nor has there been an adequate study of the effects of an explosion or fire involving ethanol in a densely populated area. In other places where there have been such events, entire populations of towns have been evacuated and the fires have been allowed to burn out. How would that work in the crowded neighborhoods of Cambridge, Somerville, Everett, Chelsea, or in any of the communities along the commuter lines in the Boston area? Even simple derailment overnight would seriously complicate commuter travel in the morning, to say nothing of the impact on the economy of the region. As for the safety of rail transport, one needs only to consider the recent rail accidents in Missouri and Connecticut to see that this is in question. Please everyone, take the time to become well informed on this issue before forming your opinion.

  • MGarrity

    I have to question the faith I once had in the ability of our government to oversee and regulate. There is currently no common sense approach to address the overlapping and sometimes redundant regulatory mandates. The multitude of federal agencies that are charged with overseeing every aspect of ethanol from processing, transporting, distribution, and cleanup are, to name a few, EPA, DOT, TSA, DHS, EPCRA, USCG, FRA, OSHA, and so on. ALL these agencies each have their own definitions, reporting, and procedures that contradict other federal agencies also charged with oversight and regulation of the same issue. So if one says me, “that we will be fine if…” or “it is already being done,” that does not instill great confidence.

    The recent train accidents have only increased my concern. Both accidents left dozens injured, tens of thousands of commuters inconvenienced, and taxpayers footing the bill for millions of dollars in repairs.

    5-25-2013 – Missouri, two (2) freight trains collided causing the collapse of a highway overpass; and

    5-17-2013 – Connecticut, a collision of the Metro-North trains forced Amtrak to shut down service between New York and Boston.

  • AnOski

    We’re now afraid to ship *potentially* dangerous substances through our cities, citing fear of terrorists.

    Another commenter below says such cargo should have security patrols. Afraid of something? It’s alcohol.

    Yup. The terrorists won.