Communities Unprepared for Ethanol Trains, State Study Shows

Communities Unprepared for Ethanol Trains, State Study Shows

A Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) draft study assessing the safety implications of ethanol-carrying freight trains reveals that communities through which these trains will travel are unprepared to for a possible accident. While state and local governments are preempted from regulating rail traffic, Global Petroleum, the Chelsea-based destination for the ethanol, requires a state license for improvements to its rail depot located on the protected harbor area of Chelsea Creek. Last year's state transportation bond bill both mandated this study and prohibited the state Department of Environment Protection from issuing the license until the study's completion.

The MassDOT study examined ethanol accidents nationwide, local rail accidents, possible freight routes, and made recommendations regarding rail operations and maintenance as well as emergency preparedness.

Currently, ethanol trains enter Massachusetts from the west or north, head to Worcester, where they turn south to Providence, Rhode Island. There, the ethanol is loaded on barges and brought to Global's facility in Chelsea where it's offloaded, mixed into gasoline, and then sent to retailers. Global plans, once their rail depot is upgraded to support these trains, to route trains directly to Chelsea. While the state, through the MBTA, purchased the track that will be used for deliveries, the railroads retained the right to use them for freight trains. MassDOT identified three possible routes trains will take, all of them effecting Cambridge, either through the Grand Junction tracks, which start near the BU Bridge, pass MIT, and then head through Kendall Square and East Cambridge, or the Fitchburg Line, which enter near Alewife and continue through Porter Square.

The MassDOT report assesses the safety impact of ethanol deliveries, by examining the record of rail crashes nationwide and locally, identifying populations and institutions put at risk, highlighting best practices for emergency response to ethanol emergencies, and recommending a series of actions designed to mitigate the risks of these mile-long trains, containing up to 3 million gallons of ethanol.

At a community meeting in Chelsea Monday, MassDOT officials were peppered with questions about the report's recommendations, compliance with those recommendations and next steps. While MassDOT officials seemed receptive to community suggestions to strengthen the recommendations, they made clear both by what they said and didn't say that their hands were tied by the legislation that created the study and the pre-emption of local regulatory authority over rail traffic.

The report notes, for example, that 70% of ethanol rail cars are of a design now known to be vulnerable to puncture in a derailment. Yet, all the report can do is suggest that railways work with shippers to minimize the use of cars built before October, 2011 when they underwent a safety redesign. The report also recommends a series of actions by Global Petroleum make their facility safe and secure, but has no mechanisms to insure those actions are taken.

There are, as well, a series of recommendations around emergency preparedness and disaster response. Federal recommendations are that, in case of an ethanol accident, there be an evacuation zone of up to 1/2 mile radius. The report identifies those populations at risk and hightlights some of the more vulnerable institutions in the area: schools, hospitals and senior housing. MassDOT has also inventoried the special foam required to fight ethanol fires and recommends the purchase of additional foam as well as fire fighting apparatus. As comments from environment justice group Alternatives for Community & Environment (ACE) note:

The Greater Boston Area Fire Chiefs have attested to the fact that there is not a sufficient amount of alcohol resistant foam available in the cities and towns affected by the proposal; that it is infeasible for mutual aid to properly deliver alcohol resistant foam from one city to another in an appropriate amount of time; and that the Massachusetts Fire Academy does not have the capacity to train all of the fire fighters in each of the affected communities.

ACE lists more than 25 vulnerable institutions that the MassDOT report overlooked in Chelsea and East Boston. ACE also calls for a "consequence analysis", that is, a description of specific accident scenarios and what it is likely to occur, a recommendation made, as well, by Gerard Mahoney, Cambridge's Assistant Fire Chief, who was part of the study's Technical Advisory Group.

But, as Massachusetts struggles to understand the impact of ethanol transit, the ethanol industry, created by a set of government mandates and tax incentives, struggles with a changed economic environment. The midwest drought has caused a drastic increase in the price of the corn from which ethanol is derived. This cost hike and the descreased consumption of gasoline have combined, the NY Times reports, to lead an idling of 10% of the nation's ethanol production plants.

While environmental activists in Chelsa hope that they can still block the license required to renovate Global's railway siding, for as long as there is an ethanol industry, large quantities of it will be transported by rail. The question isn't whether densely populated areas will be put at risk. Instead, the question is which areas will be burdened because, if Chelsea activists succeed, ethanol trains will still travel through Providence, Worcester and Springfield. But this true with much of the fuel industries. Corporations profit with the assistance of tax breaks and subsidies, while communities like Cambridge and Chelsea are left to bear the external costs of environmental and emergency preparedness.

ACE has created a set of concensus comments on the draft report, found below. Those who wish to be a signatory to those comments should email Staci Rubin, Staff Attorney at

Individuals who wish to join with the Chelsea Creek Action Group, the umbrella organization of activists from Chelsea and East Boston fighting ethanol trains, can contact Roseann Bongiovanni Associate Executive Director of the Chelsea Collaborative at or Kim Foltz, Director of Community Building and Environment, Neighborhood of Affordable Housing at The group holds meetings the 3rd Tuesday of each month.

Comments are on the MassDOT report can be sent to its Project Manager, Paul Nelson at before noon, March 21st.
Map of Rail Routes

Optional soundtrack for this post:

DRAFT Consensus Comments on MassDOT Ethanol Study Recommendations

Report on the Safety Impacts of Ethanol Transportation by Rail through Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea, Everett, Somerville, & Revere

Picture of March 29, 2010 ethanol train derailment in Lee, MA, courtesy of the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services Hazmat Team and the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, under a Creative Commons CC BY 2.0 license.

Read CambridgeHappenings , a daily Cambridge news summary, curated from fresh, local sources.