Ethanol poses critical concerns

Aug. 1, 2007
PUSHED by government mandates, shipments of ethanol and gasoline/ethanol blends are soaring across the United States. An overwhelming majority of these

PUSHED by government mandates, shipments of ethanol and gasoline/ethanol blends are soaring across the United States. An overwhelming majority of these shipments are handled without incident. Transporters and petroleum terminaling facilities do an outstanding job.

Unfortunately, incidents do happen. Worse still, many emergency responders lack the training and equipment to safely and effectively handle these ethanol events. It's not an exaggeration to say that the potential for a major tragedy is growing by the day.

First and foremost, there are major differences in the way ethanol fires and spills must be handled compared with gasoline incidents. Fires and spills involving ethanol and ethanol/gasoline blends pose some complex challenges for emergency responders.

Since 2000, there have been 26 major ethanol fires in the United States, and firefighters have not had particularly good success combating those blazes, according to David White, president of Fire & Safety Specialists Inc. In most cases, the tanks containing the ethanol products burned to the ground before the firefighters were able to extinguish the fire.

It's important to understand that blazes involving E85 (85% ethanol and 15% gasoline) and other ethanol/gasoline blends containing more than 10% ethanol must be treated differently than traditional gasoline fires. That's because ethanol is a polar/water-miscible flammable liquid (one that mixes readily with water) that will degrade the effectiveness of firefighting foam that is not alcohol resistant.

Researchers reported earlier this year that most of the firefighting foams typically used for gasoline blazes are ineffective on ethanol and ethanol/gasoline blends. Their findings were part of a presentation on ethanol fires that was made in June during the Independent Liquid Terminals Association's 27th annual International Operating Conference. A report on the conference is in this issue of Bulk Transporter.

Only two foam formulations (AR-AFFF and AR-AFFP) proved effective with ethanol blends from E10 through E95. However, AR-AFFP was successful on E95 only at higher application rates, and it failed a burn-back test. Only AR-AFFF passed a sprinkler application, which is typical of the fire suppression systems at many storage terminal loading racks.

Some firefighters still believe that they can achieve success by flooding an ethanol fire with water. Unfortunately, ethanol remains combustible even when it is diluted to a 10% level in water. That means an ethanol fire in a 100,000-gallon storage tank would continue burning even after an application of 900,000 gallons of water.

Getting good data on ethanol/gasoline fires may be one of the biggest difficulties faced by emergency responders. First of all, there is a tremendous amount of misinformation on the Internet. Some pro-ethanol sites completely ignore the firefighting issues.

The federal government contributes to the emergency response confusion, especially when it comes to placarding for transportation. While pure ethanol must carry the 1170 placard, there are three different placards for use with ethanol/gasoline blends — 1203 (gasoline containing up to 20% ethanol), 1987 (ethanol containing up to 5% gasoline), and 1993 (approved for varying concentrations of gasoline/ethanol).

None of the three placards currently approved for gasoline/ethanol blends was intended for that product. The 1203 placard is used primarily for gasoline, and 1993 is commonly used to denote shipments of diesel fuel and heating oil. Only 1170 and 1987 apply specifically to alcohol.

Petroleum haulers and storage terminals need to be proactive to ensure that emergency responders and Local Emergency Planning Committees have a clear understanding of whether ethanol-blended fuels are being transported and stored through an area. Industry members also need to take an active role in educating emergency responders on the challenges posed by these cargoes.

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About the Author

Charles Wilson

Charles E. Wilson has spent 20 years covering the tank truck, tank container, and storage terminal industries throughout North, South, and Central America. He has been editor of Bulk Transporter since 1989. Prior to that, Wilson was managing editor of Bulk Transporter and Refrigerated Transporter and associate editor of Trailer/Body Builders. Before joining the three publications in Houston TX, he wrote for various food industry trade publications in other parts of the country. Wilson has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and served three years in the U.S. Army.