Ethanol train plan puts Cambridge, Somerville at risk for one company’s profits

A 2011 ethanol train derailment forced the evacuation of the 787 residents of Tiskilwa, Ill. (Photo: foilhat)
A 2011 ethanol train derailment forced the evacuation of the 787 residents of Tiskilwa, Ill. (Photo: foilhat)

One of the core principles of sound public infrastructure is the equal sharing of risks and rewards. When trains run on time and traffic flows smoothly, we all benefit. When potholes need to be filled or subway cars need to be repaired, we share in the costs because we know the rewards outweigh the costs. Sometimes a plan comes along that creates risks that far outweigh any potential public reward. And then there is the rare proposal that promises enormous shared risks but no public benefits.  One such proposal is a plan by a Fortune 500 company, Global Partners, to use commuter rail tracks in Somerville and Cambridge for the delivery of highly flammable ethanol to a facility in Revere.

Ethanol, sometimes referred to as grain alcohol, is a volatile, flammable liquid that is commonly blended into gasoline.  It is produced mainly in the Midwest and shipped by rail to other parts of the country. At the moment, ethanol bound for the Global Partners facility is first taken by rail to the Port of Providence, then shipped by barge to Revere. Construction has been proposed at the Revere facility that would allow Global to transport ethanol via local rail – the Fitchburg Line, Lowell Line and Grand Junction Railroad.

What makes rail shipments potentially dangerous is the vast amount of ethanol that they carry – nearly 2 million gallons per train, multiple times per week – and the population density of the Cambridge and Somerville neighborhoods that the ethanol would be taken through. In 2011, an ethanol train derailed and caught fire in Tiskilwa, Ill., necessitating the evacuation of the entire town – 787 people. A Massachusetts Department of Transportation safety study has determined that nearly 100,000 people in Cambridge and Somerville live within areas put at risk by these trains. In the case of an ethanol accident, safe evacuation would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible.

The dangers of transporting ethanol aren’t the only thing that makes this proposal so galling.

Despite the tremendous risk these ethanol trains would pose to our neighborhoods, there is no higher purpose or common good that would be served. Just one corporation – a Fortune 500 company with annual profits exceeding $300 million – stands to benefit from a proposal that is fundamentally unsafe and irresponsible. Should this plan be carried out, it will be the responsibility of municipal fire departments to be prepared for the worst. In the event of an ethanol fire, traditional firefighting methods are useless and only expensive, toxic, alcohol-resistant foam will be effective in fighting the fire. The safety study carried out by the Department of Transportation showed that our communities are not adequately prepared to fight a catastrophic fire resulting from an accident involving one of these trains, which means significant public investment would be required to mitigate the danger – all for the bottom line of one company.

Unfortunately, this proposal may be difficult (but not impossible) to stop. The U.S. Constitution grants the federal government power to regulate interstate commerce, and as such, Massachusetts has relatively little jurisdiction over Global’s plan. If our community is to stop this dangerous proposal, we will need those in Washington to join with the broad coalition of state and local elected officials and community activists that has organized around the common goal of protecting our property, our families and the public good. If we speak with one voice once again, we can be just as effective in this fight as we have been many times before.

Tim Toomey is a city councillor and a state representative for the Massachusetts 26th Middlesex District. He represents eastern portions of Cambridge and Somerville.


5 Responses to "Ethanol train plan puts Cambridge, Somerville at risk for one company’s profits"

  1. Mark Jaquith   Tuesday, March 26, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    Another thing to think about is that these 60 to 100 car trains (!) would be over a mile long. At slow speeds on the Grand Junction line, intersections would be blocked for 5 to 10 minutes at a time. If a train broke down or derailed on Medford Street the entire eastern part of the city would be cut off until it got fixed. That could be a problem.

  2. Saul   Tuesday, March 26, 2013 at 9:11 pm

    State law limits trains from blocking grade-level crossings for more than 5 minutes. That’s what limits the length of the trains to the 80-ish car length.

    Of course, this does nothing in the case of a train breaking down. Chelsea is in similar straits, where a train breaking down at the wrong spot would block every rail crossing in the city.

  3. mgarrity   Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 3:06 pm

    As a resident of Chelsea, I was very surprised by the MassDOT Study’s over reliance and confidence of the federal and state governments’ capabilities with regard to oversight and regulation. In addition, it was clear from the recommendations made there are no real safety regulations in place that would protect the citizens, the environment, or the land from ethanol rail transport. What is in place are solely to protect a private company and its ability to make a profit. I believe that this unjust and adversely affect our health and safety. Never mind the cost that each city or town government will be required to spend on safety training and equipment for this private train to run through our community with no material benefit.

    Again, speaking as a resident of Chelsea, and to add, I was completely shocked with the casualness in which MassDOT presented this pro forma study. Almost the entire population of the City Chelsea is at risk (Chelsea has approximately 2 sq. mi. of actual land and the so-called “buffer zone” for an accident is ½ mile radius). To simply say that train accidents are rare and/or to gloss over the adverse environmental impact currently experienced in a city such as Chelsea was offensive.

  4. RainbowSlice   Tuesday, April 2, 2013 at 1:05 am

    This truly is a terrible idea! I understand the business imperative for cost- and time-efficient transportation of raw materials but not when thousands would end up at risk and there is another working option already, however imperfect. I sincerely hope this reckless proposal gets shut down before something horrific has happened in our community!

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