Getting Control of Ethanol Spills

By James L. Pray | April 08, 2008
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Recent news reports suggest that the ethanol industry is experiencing an increase in accidental releases of ethanol into the environment. While most of these spills are the result of train derailments and truck accidents that may be outside the control of ethanol plant managers, some of the spills are occurring at plants during the transfer of ethanol or denaturant.

One explanation for the recent increase in reported spills is the steep increase in ethanol production in the United States. A four-fold increase in production from 1999 to 2008, matched by a proportionate increase in the handling of denaturant by ethanol plants, means that the industry has had to hire and train many new employees. I estimate that the industry handles 250,000 transfer operations each year. If those operations have a 99.99 percent success rate, 25 spills per year will still occur across the country. A quick search through Internet reports suggests that the success rate is even better than 99.99 percent. The industry must be doing something right.

Still, even a few high-profile spills involving fires or destruction of habitat will trigger a request for additional regulation and oversight. With ethanol production poised to nearly double over the next several years as plants currently under construction are finished, this industry has an obligation to study its own procedures and training in order to reduce the number of spills and avoid the new burdensome regulatory oversight that might follow.

Training needs to also consider the fact that a railroad tank car is not under the effective control of the plant once it begins its journey. The plant is powerless if employees unloading the car do not properly shut the valves once the car is emptied. If tank car valves are not properly inspected when they arrive back at the ethanol plant, fuel can be released as the tanks are filled. Likewise, valves and seals can work loose or fail over time, a problem that is likely to increase as railroad tank cars built to transport ethanol begin to age. In fact, the age of the railroad tank cars has been a factor in a number of spills. Complicating liability concerns is the fact under applicable law that the plant may be found liable for any equipment failures experienced by its tank cars even if those failures take place while being hauled by the railroad.

In addition to worker safety, environmental and lost production concerns, plants need to be aware of the regulatory burdens. Both state environmental agencies and the U.S. EPA can impose substantial fines. The EPA is quick to fine any company that does not report spills to the National Response Center (800-424-8802) within 15 minutes of discovery. Spill investigations involving railcars are also overseen by the Federal Railroad Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation. If there were not enough federal agencies getting involved, the Department of Homeland Security has recently issued final regulations creating new reporting, recordkeeping and site security requirements.

So what can the industry do to prevent additional regulatory burdens? Hire good consultants to properly train your workforce. Work with local emergency responders so that they know how to assist in handling an ethanol or denaturant spill. Inspect equipment and be prepared to replace or repair any defective items immediately. Finally, have all documentation in order.

James L. Pray chairs the environmental practice group at BrownWinick, a Des Moines, Iowa-based law firm serving the renewable fuels industry. Reach him at [email protected] or (515) 242-2404.