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October 24, 2006


Derailment Leads To Ethanol Fire

Growing market for ethanol puts more pressure on rails

Jeff Johnson

Twenty-three railcars in an 86-tanker-long train carrying ethanol derailed on Oct. 20, leading to an explosion and fire near New Brighton in rural Pennsylvania, 25 miles north of Pittsburgh. The Norfolk Southern cars derailed near a bridge over Beaver River, and many wound up in the river. No one was hurt in the accident, but some 100 people were evacuated.

The company would not release figures on the amount of ethanol spilled or the total amount the train carried, Rudy Husband, a company spokesman, tells C&EN. But he says each tanker has a capacity of 30,000 gal.

More than 80% of the nearly 5 billion gal of ethanol made in the U.S. this year is shipped by rail, says Ron Lamberty, vice president for market development with the American Coalition for Ethanol, an association of ethanol-related businesses and ethanol supporters. The rest goes by barge or truck. Unlike for gasoline, there are no pipelines for ethanol.

Because ethanol is water soluble, it must be isolated from water, a fact that makes its handling difficult. And there are other problems with pipeline transportation for this fuel.

For gasoline, Lamberty notes, a system of pipelines takes refined gas from the coasts, mostly Texas and Louisiana, to the rest of the country.

"There are about 250 billion gal of gasoline moving around the country," Lamberty says, ?but ethanol is only about 5 billion gal. It is an insignificant amount."

And for ethanol the flow must go the other way. "We've talked about a pipeline running from the Midwest to the East or West Coast, but the question is whether it would be economical," Lamberty adds.

Meanwhile, ethanol production and use is encouraged by the government, and the amount produced by U.S. companies continues to increase.

"This is a growing business for us," Husband says. He refuses to give shipment numbers, however, saying this would aid Norfolk Southern's competitors.

Railroads maintain that they have the capacity to handle the added cargoes, a fact underscored by Husband, who adds that the Oct. 20 accident was the only ethanol accident he could remember.

In late September, legislation was introduced by Iowa Sens. Tom Harkin (D) and Richard G. Lugar (R) requiring the Department of Energy to study the feasibility of transporting ethanol by pipeline from the Midwest, where it is made, to the West and East Coasts, where demand is expected to grow.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the Pennsylvania accident and has not determined a cause. A report will be issued in six months to one year, a spokesman says.

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