Clean-up begins after ethanol train derailment

By Kris Bevill | February 07, 2011

Clean-up work is under way at the scene of a train derailment and consequent ethanol blaze that occurred near Arcadia, Ohio, about an hour south of Toledo, in the early morning hours on Feb. 6. Norfolk Southern Corp. spokesman Rudy Husband said a 62-car train hauling ethanol was headed from Chicago to North Carolina when 31 of the cars derailed outside of Arcadia. Ten of the train cars caught on fire, five exploding in massive fireballs that could be seen from 20 miles away, according to local reports. The cause of the derailment has yet to be determined, Husband said.

Hancock County Emergency Management Director Garry Valentine said six volunteer fire departments responded to the incident call but none were immediately put to use other than to monitor the blaze. “We decided because of safety reasons and other things—this was a rural fire, we did not have a lot of water available to use other than tankers—instead of trying to get it knocked down and having troubles with it re-lighting, we let it burn,” Valentine said. Thousands of gallons of ethanol burned off between the time of the incident and when the flames were finally extinguished late in the afternoon the next day, but neither Valentine nor Husband was sure exactly how much ethanol was lost in the spill.

Valentine said this was the first major ethanol accident he’s experienced in Hancock County despite having four railroad companies hauling large loads of ethanol through the county on a daily basis. Area fire departments have not received official ethanol-specific training, but Valentine said the response went smoothly. He credits area ethanol plants for providing basic information that aided in the first responders’ efforts.  There are three ethanol plants located relatively close to Hancock County— Poet LLC’s 68 MMgy plants in Fostoria and Leipsic and the 54 MMgy Guardian Lima LLC plant in Lima. Representatives from all three plants have visited with local firefighters to provide information on how ethanol is produced and what considerations should be taken in case of an ethanol fire. “They [ethanol plant personnel] have been really cooperative and willing to help us do things,” Valentine said. “So we did have some knowledge. I won’t say we had hands-on experience, but we did have verbal knowledge. I think that helped us out a lot because some of those things come back to our minds real quick when we’re out there.”

Tom Slattery, Poet’s environmental health and safety manager, said Poet facilities often host training sessions on plant property to familiarize first responders with the layout of the plant as well as the unique properties of ethanol. “Maintaining a close relationship with local emergency services is an important part of the extensive safety procedures at all Poet plants,” he said.

Valentine said now that an ethanol incident has been experienced, he plans to organize official ethanol-specific training for area firefighters in case of future accidents. There are several national ethanol fire safety programs. The Renewable Fuels Association has partnered with several entities to provide educational ethanol fire safety programs, devoted to training first responders for these exact situations. In 2008, the group joined the TransCAER (Transportation Community Awareness and Emergency Response) program, which was founded in 1997 by Union-Pacific Corp. and the Dow Chemical Co. to provide first responder training related to hazardous materials. The RFA is also a partner in the Ethanol Emergency Response Coalition, which exists to provide ethanol-specific training to all personnel involved in responding to these types of incidents. “The need for safety information and training is always needed,” said Matt Hartwig, RFA communications director. “One accident is one too many. The RFA and the EERC are dedicated to ensuring the safety of ethanol employees and the communities in which the industry operates.”

No injuries have been reported as a result of the accident, likely due to the location of the incident. Valentine said the derailment happened about a mile and half outside of Arcadia, so only 20 homes had to be evacuated as a precautionary measure. The first responders’ greatest concern was the close proximity of a fertilizer plant to the blaze. “We had 30,000 gallons of anhydrous ammonia right next to the railroad tracks,” Valentine said. Fortunately, the blaze did not spread to the chemical tanks.

Norfolk Southern will be financially responsible for all costs incurred as a result of the accident. The U.S. EPA’s on-scene coordinator, Mark Durno, said EPA officials will coordinate with railroad representatives to conduct soil and water sampling and analysis to determine the environmental impacts of the accident. Currently, the agency is coordinating with local emergency management personnel to monitor the air for volatile organic compounds and has constructed earthen dams to prevent any potentially contaminated liquid from travelling off-site. “Because ethanol burns relatively clean, we have not seen any significant chemical presence in the air away from the site of the incident,” Durno said. “Because ethanol is soluble in water, it is necessary to achieve rapid clean-up of impacted areas, especially soil, before the contamination spreads too far. Unlike petroleum, which can be extracted from the top of the water, concentrated ethanol would require full liquid removal. In groundwater, ethanol does not respond to typical remediation techniques, like air stripping and filtration. However, it does naturally degrade quickly compared to other contaminants.

The results of the pending soil contamination analysis will dictate the length of the EPA’s involvement in the clean-up efforts, Durno said.

Durno said minor ethanol spills have occurred in the Hancock County region, the most significant of which occurred in July 2008. Norfolk Southern’s most recent ethanol train derailment occurred in Pennsylvania in 2006, when 23 cars jumped the tracks on a bridge outside of Pittsburgh. Several of the ethanol-filled cars that remained on the bridge caught fire and were allowed to burn out. Hartwig said train derailments such as these bring to light the need to address larger issues associated with the U.S. transportation infrastructure. “That means understanding what investments need to be made in rail infrastructure so that accidents involving ethanol or much more dangerous materials can be prevented in the future,” he said. “The ethanol industry is ready to work with our partners in the rail industry to continuously improve the safe transport of ethanol all across the country.”