Representative Denise Provost (D- Somerville) has announced the unanimous adoption, in the FY 2015 House Budget, of her amendment (392, as amended) to protect residents and first responders in Somerville and statewide from a particular fire hazard. “I am gratified that the House has acted
to mitigate the dangers of shipping ethanol by train,” said Rep. Provost; “Somerville once had to evacuate almost a third of its population because of a train derailment involving hazardous cargo.”
While ethanol is not currently shipped through Somerville, nearby fuel distributors have considered switching to ethanol delivery by train instead of by barge. A March 2013 study by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) of the rail shipment scenario noted that over 90% of Somerville’s population lives within a half- mile of rail lines used to ship freight, and would be at risk from potential ethanol shipping.
Ethanol ignites easily during train derailments; it can’t be extinguished with water, but requires the skilled application of special alcohol-resistant foam. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), ethanol was “the most frequently transported hazardous material” in the US in 2012. When tank cars carrying such materials travel through densely populated areas, they have “the potential for severe catastrophic outcomes,” according to NTSB’s 2014 Safety Recommendation.
Since shipping ethanol by rail would also expose Chelsea, Everett, Revere and other communities to increased fire hazard, amendment 392 places a limited moratorium on the issuance of chapter 91 licenses to expand ethanol facilities in the Boston inner harbor area. Until January 1, 2017, the state could only issue such a license where the ethanol is being transported to the site by barge or other marine vessel. “This short delay should give the federal government the time it needs to act on the NTSB’s safety recommendations,” Provost said; “meanwhile, our legislature will do whatever it can to protect the people of Massachusetts from avoidable harm.”
Ethanol, which is highly volatile, is mandated by federal law to be added to gasoline. It is transported by rail through western Massachusetts communities, including Pittsfield, Springfield, and Worcester, on its way to Rhode Island, where it is loaded on to barges to supply eastern Massachusetts distributers. Amendment 392 requires the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) to develop, with community and public safety input, a statewide plan for responding to ethanol disasters, by July 1, 2016. The plan would include risk assessments, needed training for fire fighters, how much special foam needs to be kept in reserve, as well as potential evacuation routes.