Biofuels May Be Green, But Color The Risk Yellow

An aerial view the day after the derailment shows what firefighters were up against the night before. (Photo by Cherry Valley Fire Lt. Scott Sturm)
An aerial view the day after the derailment shows what firefighters were up against the night before. (Photo by Cherry Valley Fire Lt. Scott Sturm)
More than a dozen tank cars carrying ethanol burn after a train derailment on the evening of Friday, June 19, 2009 in Winnebago County, Ill., about 80 miles west of Chicago. (Photo by David Carlson)
More than a dozen tank cars carrying ethanol burn after a train derailment on the evening of Friday, June 19, 2009 in Winnebago County, Ill., about 80 miles west of Chicago. (Photo by David Carlson)

Biofuels, that is fuels that are manufactured from plants or similar biomass, are doubly green. They’re both environmentally preferable, at least in some ways, to petroleum-based fuels and a growth industry despite the slow economy. If the fire service were to assign a color to biofuels, though, it would have to be yellow, for caution.

Biofuels, primarily in the form of ethanol, don’t pose an unprecedented risk to the public or responders. Rather, they challenge responders to learn some things, unlearn other things and keep up with an industry that seems headed nowhere but up. Just how well the fire service is doing appears to be a mixed picture.

One lesson from a fatal ethanol fire last year is that knowledge is still your most important tool.

Ethanol is a potential problem because besides being a flammable liquid, it’s a polar solvent and will break down traditional Class B foam, rendering it useless.

E10 gasohol fires don’t necessarily need alcohol-resistant (AR) foam and can be handled with an increased application rate of non-AR foam, according to Kristy Moore, director of technical services for the Renewable Fuels Association and co-chair of the Ethanol Emergency Response Coalition. On the other hand, she said the E85 fuel that can be used in newer flexible-fuel cars does require AR foam.

The next wave of ethanol-based fuels will likely be higher-ethanol blends, such as E20 and E30, for vehicles originally designed to work on gasoline. The problem, Moore said, is that “we don’t really know the cutoff point” at which AR foam is needed. The Ethanol Emergency Response Coalition is working on the issue, she said.

Chief Ed Plaugher, the assistant executive director of national programs and consulting services for the International Association of Fire Chiefs, pointed out that gasohol up to E20 is already approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation for use in all cars, although this next step isn’t happening yet.

U.S. ethanol production in 2007 was 6.5 billion gallons, a big surge from 3.4 billion gallons in 2004, according to the American Coalition for Ethanol. It is currently blended into 70 percent of America’s gasoline, mostly as E10, according to the group.

Ethanol is both a fixed facility risk and a transportation hazard with 70 percent of it traveling by rail while the rest is moved by road or barge, according to Jim Cottrell, whose firm, Cottrell Associates Inc., does risk assessments for ethanol plants and neighboring jurisdictions.

Ethanol is the most commonly shipped hazardous material on U.S. railroads, he noted.

The biodiesel situation is a little different, because from a firefighting standpoint, biodiesel is identical to petroleum diesel. The problem is that making biodiesel requires ethanol or methanol, as well as nastier stuff.

Like ethanol, biodiesel is a growth industry.

“Our goal is to displace 5 percent of petroleum diesel” by 2015, or about 2 billion of the nation’s 40 billion gallons of annual production, said Don Scott of the National Biodiesel Board. At full production, the nation’s 140 biodiesel plants could meet that goal, he said.

One of the factors boosting biodiesel’s growth is the array of possible feedstocks, which include vegetable oil, animal fat and recycled oils. That in turn helping to drive a portion of the biodiesel scene that Scott and others say the fire service should be keeping an eye on – do-it-yourself biodiesel.

For example, one Web site – – has instructions for converting an electric water heater into a home biodiesel processor.

One business, Springboard Biodiesel, bills itself as the manufacturer of “the industry’s leading small scale, fully automated biodiesel processors.” Asked about safety, a company representative replied by e-mail: “Our BioPro processors are designed with safety foremost in mind… However, we always stress that our users exercise diligence and caution when working with methanol and sulfuric acid, both of which are essential ingredients to the process.”

Whether novices working with these hazardous materials will necessarily be diligent and cautious is something fire departments might not want to assume.

Cottrell warned that co-ops are springing up around the country to make biodiesel on a small scale and that DIY biodiesel setups could become more prevalent than meth labs.

Because of the surprise factor, a do-it-yourself biodiesel plant could be “a rude awakening for responders,” Plaugher said. “So far these processes are not being regulated in single-family homes.”

The fire service’s preparedness for ethanol is better than a few years ago, he said, although there’s still some concern, especially about rural fire districts. Departments often prepare on a mutual aid basis, he said, with shared training and purchases of foam.

Cottrell said some fire departments, particularly rural ones, still aren’t up to speed even on local fixed-facility biofuel hazards.

He further suggested that even municipal fire departments for the most part are not well trained for flammable-liquid fires. In part, he said, that is because when they do train, it’s almost exclusively with combustible liquids like diesel, which have higher flash points and can be extinguished with plain water. True flammable liquids, like gasoline and ethanol, have lower flash points and cannot be put out with water.

Cottrell said the questions he gets about product shelf life suggest to him that departments are stockpiling AR foam, instead of training with it and buying more. Typical prices are about $25 a gallon for regular aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) versus about $40 a gallon for AR-AFFF, he said.

In preparing for a biofuel incident, Cottrell said, training and awareness are most important, closely followed by mutual aid.

“In numbers, there is strength,” he said. “Mutual aid is the way to deal with the ethanol issue… You fight these fires by the square foot, just like you paint.”

(Departments interested in short training videos should check out a dozen on YouTube posted by Cottrell under the handle “arafff136.”)

Connecticut is one state that has put itself well ahead of the curve on the biofuels threat, assembling an impressive arsenal.

Jeff Morrissette, the Connecticut state fire administrator, said a Regional Foam Trailer Program was started in January 2003, when the state bought five dual-axle trailers. Each has two 400-foot 1-3/4-inch preconnects and one 300-foot 2-1/2-inch preconnect, a 500-gpm Elkhart monitor and an electric transfer pump. More to the point, each trailer carries 500 gallons of just one type of foam, National Foam’s Universal Gold 1-percent/3-percent AR-AFFF.

The trailers (since July 2007, a total of eight of them) are hosted by fire departments along major transportation corridors around the state. They’re dispatched by the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, and the protocol is to always send two trailers at once because, as Morrissette commented, “Once you start flowing foam, you don’t want to stop.”

And when personnel from the hosting departments deliver trailers to an emergency scene, they don’t just drop them off. They stay till the incident is over.

Even though the units are designed for ease of use, using one highly-capable (if expensive) foam simplifies training issues, Morrissette said. “You just connect water, and you’re ready to go.” Even a salt-water source will do.

This spring Connecticut officials deployed some of their trailers in response to a freight train derailment in the eastern part of the state. Four of the tank cars that left the tracks were carrying ethanol, but none of them ruptured and there was no fire.

However, a train derailment in Illinois last year had serious consequences. As is the case in Connecticut, Illinois fire officials thought they were prepared. It happened in Winnebago County, about 80 miles west of Chicago, as dusk approached on Friday, June 19, 2009.

Local fire departments were already busy. A storm had just inundated the area with four inches of rain, so there were plenty of calls for flooding and traffic accidents. Rockford, the county seat, had already activated its EOC.

What wouldn’t be discovered until later was that a set of east-west railroad tracks had washed out where they crossed Mulford Road barely east of Rockford, in Cherry Valley Township.

At 8:39 p.m., a Canadian National Railway train with 116 cars and locomotives, heading from Iowa to Chicago, passed that crossing, and 19 cars near the middle of the train derailed. Most of them exploded or burned.

The first vehicle waiting in line at the crossing, a minivan with a family inside, was hit by a fireball. The mother was killed, but her husband and pregnant daughter escaped. Both were badly burned, and the daughter later miscarried.

Within minutes, the Cherry Valley Fire Protection District was dispatched for a derailment with explosions, according to Chief Craig Wilt.

Given the large quantities of ethanol passing through the area, CVFPD had planned for an ethanol incident, though they’d anticipated that it would involve a semi-trailer. Nonetheless, Wilt explained, “We’re very familiar with these trains coming through.”

Unfortunately, the train couldn’t reach a stop until the locomotives were a mile away, and it was nearly 10:20 p.m. before the engine crew could inform responders that all the derailed cars held ethanol – 28,800 gallons each.

The north side of the accident scene was residential, so the responders’ first priority was evacuation.

First alarms from Cherry Valley and Rockford mustered four engines, a ladder, a tower ladder, two quints, a hazmat truck, a heavy rescue, a technical rescue unit, two ARFF units, four ALS ambulances and five chief officers.

The fire apparatus initially backed up more than a quarter mile. If you were any closer, “you could feel the heat through the windshield,” said Wilt.

Responders, including four mutual aid task forces, evacuated 1,500 to 1,800 people from 700 to 800 homes, some within 100 yards of the tracks.

With the evacuation well under way and railroad officials on the scene, it was time for a strategy. Cherry Valley had put out the call for AR-AFFF early on, so 400 gallons were on scene, gathered from local departments. The railroad had an additional 800 gallons en route.

Nonetheless, Wilt said, the consensus was that there was “probably not enough AR-AFFF in northern Illinois” to put out the fire. Plus, he added, “I wasn’t willing to risk any firefighters” by putting them close enough to apply foam for hours. Ultimately no foam was put on the fire.

By noon on Saturday, the noise from the pressure-relief valves on the unbreached tank cars and from the fire itself began to die down. The fire was declared out at 5 p.m. Saturday.

As bad as the incident was, no houses were lost, and there were no fatalities after the initial explosions. It could easily have been worse.

For one thing, most of the 74 ethanol tank cars were still upright on the tracks west of the scene. Of the 19 that did derail, only 15 breached and burned.

Also, a 12-inch natural-gas line ran parallel to the tracks and 10 feet below Mulford Road. The gas line was struck during the wreck, Wilt said, but providentially did not break.

In the end, the response worked as well as anyone could have hoped. The main reasons were that the people involved understood what they were dealing with and how to handle it. It’s crucial for the fire service to recognize that.

As Cottrell commented about the future of the biofuel hazard, “It’s not going to go away. It’s going to get worse.”

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