Blog   |   Nov 14th, 2016 Being better prepared for the (very rare) risk of an ethanol train derailment: TRC helps Massachusetts develop a new plan


After a series of derailments and fires involving railroad trains carrying ethanol, TRC recently worked with Hildebrand and Noll Associates to help the Commonwealth of Massachusetts develop a new plan for handling any such incidents. The resulting “Large Volume/High Concentration Ethanol Incident Response Appendix” and the associated guidance documents were adopted by the state in July. 

The 40-page Appendix outlines step-by-step advice for how fire chiefs and first responders should best evaluate and respond to a derailment of a train carrying ethanol. It includes a decision tree helping incident responders decide which steps to take when based on whether cars have been breached and/or are on fire.

One of the key recommendations in the plan is that experience shows it is usually better to control and contain a large volume/high concentration ethanol fire and let it burn out. Fire suppression should be attempted only if necessary to rescue people, and if it’s safe for firefighters to attempt. Moreover, an incident commander will generally have less than two hours to implement an offensive plan before it will be unsafe or impossible for fire personnel to extinguish the blaze. Radiant heat flux from a burning ethanol fire can be 2 to 5 times greater than from a comparable gasoline fire.

The plan also explains the importance of preparation to keep ethanol from entering groundwater, surface waters, and storm drains. In the groundwater and surface waters, ethanol can cause significant environmental damage; in storm drains, ethanol vapors may form and ignite. In addition, ethanol that enters storm drains or sanitary sewers, the plan explains, can damage wastewater treatment plants because the ethanol may kill the bacteria used in treating wastewater.

To develop this plan, we first reviewed 11 ethanol train derailments that occurred in the United States between 2006 and 2015. National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Railroad Administration databases, supplemented as needed with information from local news coverage, helped us understand in each case how many cars derailed, what types, approximate train speeds at the time of the derailment, number of cars breached, amount of product released, and when fires resulted. 

What we learned is that most ethanol tank train derailments will lead to car failures regardless of tank type, and the risk of breach and failure remains significant, even if trains are moving at 25 mph or just 10 mph.

It’s important to note that accidents involving ethanol trains are extremely rare, and shipping ethanol by train is widely acknowledged to be much safer than over-the-road tanker trucks.  In 2013, the most recent year with data available from the Association of American Railroads, 304,000 carloads of ethanol were delivered across the U.S., which accounted for about 60 to 70 percent of all ethanol transported. The last major fire involving an ethanol train was in Bon Homme, South Dakota, in September 2015. When derailments and fire do occur, they can be spectacular and get much media attention, but the record shows they are extremely rare. And as more and more new tank cars adhering to the “DOT 117” safety standard are put into service, we can have confidence the safety record will continue to improve.

All that said, for fire departments and first responders in communities through which ethanol-carrying trains may pass, knowing how to be prepared for a derailment and fire --and how to respond to it -- can be life-saving knowledge. The Massachusetts response plan provides clear guidelines, based on rigorous analysis of lessons learned from past incidents.

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Wade Narin van Court, Ph.D, PE

Wade Narin van Court, Ph.D, PE

Wade Narin van Court has more than 34 years of consulting experience for a variety of government and private sector clients and facilities, with expertise in oil/chemical release prevention and response; homeland security and emergency preparedness; regulatory compliance and permitting; and geotechnical, environmental, and civil engineering. Wade has assisted clients in the transportation, maritime, oil and gas, and industrial/commercial sectors with a wide range of consulting services for all phases of their operations. Wade has a Ph.D and M.S. in Geotechnical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley and a B.S. in Civil Engineering from the University of Washington. Contact Wade at