Iowa DOT publishes study on ethanol, crude oil rail transport

By Erin Voegele | April 27, 2016

Iowa Department of Transportation and Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management have released a study that reveals insights into the transportation of biofuels and crude oil by rail around and through the state.

The study used a series of interviews and meetings with government agencies, railroads, emergency response personnel, emergency managers, rail shippers, and biofuels producers to cover four main topic areas: prevention of spills, preparedness in the event of a spill, response to an incident, and recovery from an incident.

The group met several times over the past year to assess potential risks and propose measures to minimize those risks. Together, government and industry developed recommendations and actions to enhance the safety of this transportation supply chain.

Tamara Nicholson, director of the Iowa DOT’s Office of Rail Transportation, said, “Rather than working to impose additional rules or regulations on the transportation of these materials, as is being done in other states, we decided to work with the railroads, producers, and the emergency management community to see what procedures and resources are already in place and how those can be strengthened in Iowa.”

Regarding biofuels, the study notes approximately 4 billion gallons of ethanol was produced in Iowa last year, with the majority of that volume shipped by rail. Iowa has 3,851 miles of railroad-owned track, and eight railroads haul crude or biofuels within the state.

The study outlines actions that can be taken within the state to improve prevention, preparedness, response and recovery. For example, under the category of prevention, the study suggests the state consider ranking at-grade crossings based on their exposure to crude oil, ethanol and other hazardous commodities and increase funding for at-grade crossing improvement projects.

Specific to ethanol, the report suggests the Iowa DOT should consider hiring an FRA-certified motive power and equipment (MP&E) inspector to visit each Iowa ethanol facility on an annual basis to observe inspection practices and report on training, qualifications, and hand-off of tank cars from the ethanol refinery to the handling railroad, and consider coordinating with the FRA to obtain its ethanol refinery inspection reports. In addition, it recommends the state should evaluate and refine an ethanol refinery tank car mechanical inspection program based on its findings from its first year of inspections and coordination.

Overall, the study identified 22 specific challenges, and outlined several specific recommendations and improvement actions for each. A full copy of the report, along with an executive summary and fact sheet, can be downloaded from the Iowa DOT website