Big difference between crude, ethanol train crashes

Something amazing happened in the aftermath of the ethanol train derailment in Iowa.

No fish died.

At least none that we know of. Environmental officials in the state probably feared the worst after eight cars spilled ethanol following the Feb. 4 derailment north of Dubuque.

The Associated Press quoted state Department of Natural Resources spokesman Kevin Baskins this week:

Efforts to monitor water quality and aquatic life in the river are ongoing, Baskins said, but past results shows that the majority of ethanol in the water dissipated downstream, and no fish kills have been reported.

Not long after the crash, Fuel Freedom published a blog post outlining the differences between how ethanol and crude oil behave during an accident, although both are flammable. Relying on research at the Renewable Fuels Association, we noted that ethanol — even the denatured, toxic variety in the train cars that derailed — is water-soluble.

Sure enough, AP reported Feb. 10:

Results from several monitoring stations along the Mississippi River show much of the ethanol that leaked into the water after several train cars derailed has dissolved, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources said Monday. … Baskins said the ethanol dissipated fairly quickly in the first mile downstream, with fuel levels virtually undetectable 10 miles from the site.

It’s a stark contrast to the growing number of horrific accidents involving trains carrying oil. A runaway train in Quebec crashed in 2013, with the resulting inferno killing 47 people in the town of Lac-Megantic. There have been numerous incidents since then, and two of them right around the Iowa ethanol-train derailment shows how spectacularly different the fuels behave when there’s leakage and a fire.

Joan Lowy, an AP reporter in Washington, D.C., wrote a story this week about the efforts to improve the safety on railroads and in the tank cars that transport oil:

On Feb. 5, the Transportation Department sent the White House draft rules that would require oil trains to use stronger tank cars and make other safety improvements.

Nine days later a 100-car train hauling crude oil and petroleum distillates derailed and caught fire in a remote part of Ontario, Canada. Less than 48 hours later, a 109-car oil train derailed and caught fire in West Virginia, leaking oil into a Kanawha River tributary and burning a house to its foundation. As the fire spread across 19 of the cars, a nearby resident said the explosions sounded like an “atomic bomb.” Both fires burned for nearly a week.

Much of the attention lately has been focused on the aging DOT-111 tanker cars that have been in use since the 1960s. But the Ontario and West Virginia accidents involved newer tank cars known as 1232s. Both trains also were traveling under 40 mph, Lowy reported. “Those folks who were arguing that the 1232s may in fact be puncture-proof really can’t make that argument anymore,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Democrat of North Dakota.

Railroads contend that implementing new safety measures, such as thicker tank walls and installing electronic brakes that slow trains quickly rather than in succession, would cost them billions of dollars and slow down an already crowded schedule, owing to the increased use of oil by rail.

Lowy cited a Department of Transportation analysis, which predicts:

… that trains hauling crude oil or ethanol will derail an average of 10 times a year over the next two decades, causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people if an accident happens in a densely populated part of the U.S.

Based on recent history, and simple science, safety officials might be looking more closely at the risks of one particular fuel over others.

(Photo: Disaster in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, in 2013. Credit: TSB Canada)

1 reply
  1. Gerald Bridge
    Gerald Bridge says:

    Of course, ethanol [and all alcohols] are water soluble and biodegradable vs: float-on-water oils. Even if you are considering biodiesel, HEMP OILs or extra virgin Olive Oil in your salad dressing – ALL OF THESE OILs float on water and don’t biodegrade very easily or at all. Witness oil-coated birds and dead fish.

    Smog is nothing more than uncombusted hydrocarbon OILs phase separating in the earth’s atmosphere containing water vapor.

    Consider smog as nothing more than an oil spill in the sky as that is what it actually is. We’ve all witnessed and experienced some level of oils or refined petroleum-based fuels floating on water bodies. This is the main problem with ALL HYDROCARBONS be they methane NatGas, crude oil, common petroleum distillate fuels or uncombusted oily exhausts from cars, trucks, airplanes, lawnmowers, motorcycles and coal-fired power plants.

    All of these hydrocarbon fuels plus their UNCOMBUSTED emission products will phase separate from water bodies be they lakes, rivers, streams, oceans, ground water or water-laden air.

    What the [Oxycarbon] alcohol molecule contains which all Hydrocarbons don’t contain is an Oxygen atom.

    The end of the alcohol molecule is anchored by an OH. This OH (hydroxyl element) is almost water, which is HOH or H2O. The first carbon atom in alcohol chains is anchored by three bonded Hydrogen ions whereas all the other carbon atoms in alcohol chains (in ethanol, there are two carbons ie: C2) have two Hydrogen ions attached to them.

    Once diluted into water, biobugs, single-celled bacteria, even phytoplankton and EVERY tree, bush and green blade of grass can eat and consume the dilute alcohol as a food source. This is the basic tenent to biodegradability of all fuel alcohols vs: any oil, even an edible oil…

    What is being consumed by the biobugs and green plant life are the single carbon atoms in the simple, linear alcohol molecule. The two bonded Hydrogen ions pop off of each carbon atom as it is consumed by the bugs or green plants and becomes H2 or hydrogen gas. NO PROBLEM for H2 being in the atmosphere or in water bodies. The first carbon atom in the alcohol molecule’s chain with three Hydrogen ions becomes H2 plus a stray, single, highly magnetic leftover Hydrogen ion. It quickly pairs up with the OH at the end of the alcohol molecule to become HOH or water. Pretty simple here. This is 3rd grade chemistry and it is lacking in a world with over 7-B people combusting liquid oils and solid ground coal.

    So the basic biodegradability factors of oxycarbon alcohols all stem from a new, missing Oxygen atom in their molecule which is NOT present all forms of hydrocarbon OILs, Gasses and COAL.

    The same Oxygen atom in the alcohol molecule contains NO BTU’s. That is why all alcohols are less powerful (BTU-wise, ie: energy density, etc.) than any of the refined petroleum oily fuels such as gasoline, kerosene jet fuel or longer-chained waxy diesel.

    Yet this Oxygen atom in the alcohol molecule works to ‘fan the flames’ getting almost all of the hydrocarbon OILs in a blended fuel to fully combust. This is the smog-fighting ability of oxygenated alcohols – hence the Federal Govt’s mandate to add OXYGENATES to the nation’s liquid fuel supply of gasoline, especially in areas of non-attainment (smoggy big urban cities).

    I could go further but I’ll stop this basic chemistry lesson now with the example of alcohol’s dilution factor vs: float-on-water-oils, — even edible oils float on water. Can you not dilute your beverage alcohols such as beer, wine, whiskey, gin or tequila with water and ice cubes? Why YES, of course you can! What happens if you add water to gasoline? It will immediately phase separate and fall to the bottom of the gasoline tank – just like crude oil spills all phase separate from ocean water and float on the top. The water remains beneath the oil spill.

    Could the addition of a single atom of Oxygen (derived from H2O as steam) become the quick and easy missing link to mitigating Global Warming? I for one believe so…

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