Ethanol plants aid firefight in Illinois train derailment

By Kris Bevill | October 10, 2011

Two ethanol plants provided fire-fighting foam to crews battling a major blaze that broke out in the early hours of Oct. 7 just outside Tiskilwa in rural northwest Illinois after a train derailed there and prompted the evacuation of the town’s 745 residents.

As soon as they received word of the fire, local fire crews contacted officials at the 140 MMgy Marquis Energy LLC plant in Hennepin, located about 14 miles east of Tiskilwa, and the 110 MMgy Patriot Renewable Fuels LLC plant in Annawan, about 25 miles west of Tiskilwa, to request their foam supplies and received totes from both plants within a few hours. John Petrakis, fire chief of the nearby Princeton Fire Department, led one of the first fire crews to arrive at the scene and said the ethanol plants were “more than giving” of their supplies. Iowa Interstate Railroad Ltd., which operates the stretch of track where the incident occurred, also delivered a fire suppression outfit to the scene which offered even more ethanol firefighting capability.

Fire safety is a major area of concern for the ethanol industry because traditional firefighting techniques generally do not apply to ethanol fires. The Renewable Fuels Association heads an initiative known as the Ethanol Emergency Response Coalition which is aimed at providing training and information to first responders in the event of an ethanol-related incident. The industry also encourages individual producers to work together with local fire departments and first responders to help educate them on the specific considerations that must be given to the fuel.

Matthew Hagrelius, general counsel and head of safety and environmental matters at Marquis Energy, said a strong working relationship between the ethanol plant and the local fire department is why firefighters knew they could count on Marquis’ help during the Oct. 7 firefight. “We have them out here on a pretty regular basis just to familiarize them with the facility,” he said. “They noticed our stores of foam and had asked if we would have some available if something arose out on the highways or anything. Of course we said ‘yes.’”

Marquis provided several totes of foam suppressant, each filled with approximately 260 gallons. Patriot Renewable Fuels also provided two 65-gallon barrels. Iowa Interstate Railroad’s fire suppression outfit offered even more foam suppressant  and advanced capabilities to apply the foam, according to Petrakis.

It is unclear if all of the estimated more than 50 firefighters who assisted in battling the railcar fire had been trained in ethanol-specific techniques. Petrakis said ethanol-specific training is mandatory at his department, so his team was relatively comfortable in that hazardous materials setting, although he added that nothing ever goes exactly as planned when fighting fires. Such was the case with this fire.

The best method for fighting ethanol fires, generally speaking, is to let them burn out, while monitoring the area to prevent them from spreading and removing any nearby hazards. The Tiskilwa incident involved a 131-car train, of which 26 cars were derailed. Firefighters were able to negotiate the removal of most of the cars, but the nine ethanol-filled cars were piled on top of one another and presented major hidden fire and heat build-up concerns, Petrakis said. That, combined with 30 mile-per-hour wind gusts, prompted the responding units to move into a “defensive cooling operation,” which included using the suppression foam to cool down the railcars that hadn’t yet started on fire. “We weren’t so worried about the tanks that were on fire,” he said. “We were more concerned about the rail cars that weren’t on fire.”

Many of the responding fire departments had teams at the scene for more than 24 hours, but by Monday all residents had been allowed to return to their homes and most of the firefighters had been discharged from the scene. No injuries have been reported as a result of the incident.

The ethanol in all nine cars as well as some of the distillers grains being transported on the train belonged to Archer Daniels Midland Co. and was destined for the East Coast. ADM spokeswoman Jessie McKinney said the company was cooperating with authorities investigating the incident and that it had not impacted ADM’s ability to deliver product to its customers.

Iowa Interstate Railroad offered its apologies for the derailment in a statement and said it was offering assistance to Tiskilwa residents who had been affected by the incident. An investigative team from the National Transportation Safety Board is currently onsite attempting to determine the cause of the derailment.

Petrakis said the blaze offered invaluable hands-on training for firefighters who spent their weekend working at the scene. “We see a lot of ethanol travel through here, but we don’t get a lot of ethanol incidents,” he said. “So it was a great learning experience.”