Ethanol transport raising concerns

Ballot vote focuses on rail shipments

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / August 4, 2011

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A plan by Global Partners to begin shipping ethanol by rail to its Revere terminal is drawing concern in the city, where it is the focus of a nonbinding ballot question.

According to Fire Chief Gene Doherty, the Waltham-based oil distributor is planning to transport ethanol from Albany, N.Y., to its Revere facility on Lee Burbank Highway (Route 1A). Between Devens and Revere, he said, the trains would travel by night, in at least some places using commuter rail tracks that are used by the MBTA during the day.

The shipments would be made every three to five days with 60-car trains, according to Doherty, who has spoken with the company. Each car would contain about 29,000 gallons of ethanol, for a total load of 1.74 million gallons. Pan Am Southern would do the shipping for Global Partners.

Doherty said Global Partners currently transports ethanol by tanker truck and barge to its 88-million-gallon fuel terminal, which straddles Route 1A; on one side it abuts Chelsea Creek and on the other Suffolk Downs. He said he expects that under the plan, most of the ethanol would arrive on site by rail.

The rail cars carrying the ethanol would reach the terminal via a spur from the main railroad line beginning at the intersection of Hichborn Street and Winthrop Avenue and crossing over Railroad Avenue, according to Doherty.

Doherty said the firm hopes to begin the rail shipments sometime in 2012, after it has completed improving the spur and doing work to prepare the terminal yard for the shipments.

Representatives of Global Partners and Pan Am Southern could not be reached.

Alarmed by what he views as the public safety risks posed by planned rail shipments, former city councilor Edward O’Hara has recently begun an effort to alert other residents to the plan and to spur them to join him in opposing it.

At O’Hara’s behest, the City Council last month voted to place a nonbinding question on the Nov. 8 city election ballot calling for the citizens of Revere to go on record as being opposed to the transport of “hundreds of millions of gallons of ethanol . . . through heavily populated neighborhoods within the city.”

In an interview, O’Hara said he is aware that transporting ethanol by tanker trucks poses hazards. But he said, “If there is an explosion by a rail tank car, 40 cars can explode, and it’s catastrophic compared to one incident by a tanker trailer.’’

Irked by what he said has been the lack of public discussion of the plan, O’Hara said, “these trains are coming in from Albany through the . . . heart of Massachusetts all the way into Revere and not one single person knows about it.’’

But Doherty said that as a safety matter, he believes shipping by rail is a better option than transporting by tanker truck.

“It’s the lesser of two evils. If I had my druthers, I would rather have [fewer] tanker trucks traveling the roads of the community versus rail cars coming at night at a slow speed, off-loading and getting out. . . . Tanker trucks on the road, that is a huge problem,’’ he said, pointing as an example to the July 23 tanker truck crash on Route 1 in Saugus, which killed the driver and caused an explosion.

Mayor Thomas G. Ambrosino said that the city “doesn’t have a whole lot of regulatory authority over’’ the proposed rail shipments. “This is governed by federal rules.’’

He said, however, the city “will be looking to gather more information over the course of the ensuring year about their plans,’’ noting that Global Partners has indicated it would set up a meeting with the city and Pan Am Railways when more details are available.

“The city is always concerned when flammable materials are traveling through its borders,’’ Ambrosino said.

City Council president John Powers said the rail plan is “something we don’t have any control over,’’ but that he voted to place the question on the ballot because “I felt the people have the right to be heard.’’

“I would like to see no ethanol coming into the city. . . . But it’s a reality, and the main thing we have to do is to make sure the city is protected as much as possible,’’ he said. “That will be done by the fire chief.’’

In a statement, US Representative Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat, said, “Serious questions remain about Global Partners’ proposal to use commuter rail lines to transport ethanol along Chelsea Creek in Revere.’’

He said those include “how much ethanol will be transported through the region; how will the safety of residents of Revere and the surrounding areas be ensured in the case of an accident; how will the introduction of trains carrying ethanol affect commuter rail travel in the area; and how are stakeholders at the local city and state level being integrated into discussions on Global Partners proposal.’’

Markey said he planned to write to Global Partners “requesting answers to these questions, and how they plan to address the concerns of Revere residents.’’

A Federal Railroad Administration spokesman said via e-mail that the agency is “closely monitoring Pan Am Southern’s plans for future ethanol shipments’’ to the Revere terminal. “Pan Am is registered with the United States Department of Transportation to carry hazardous materials, and is upgrading track for this purpose, including three new tracks in the unloading facility.’’

The railroad administration spokesman said the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services “is also aware of the future ethanol shipments and from what we understand, has participated in emergency response exercises [and prepared] a briefing paper on critical response issues. In addition, FRA will participate in a field exercise with responding agencies to test command, control, coordination, and communications.’’