Several times a week trains hauling millions of gallons of ethanol lumber along tracks through the heart of Upstate cities and towns, carrying the flammable gas toward a plant in Belton, where it’s then delivered to gas stations across the Southeast.
But in the dead of night on a recent Friday, something went wrong on the train’s journey.
It happened at 1:30 a.m. July 25 while the city of Spartanburg slept. A train, operated by CSX, went off the track. Before it could stop, an engine, a hopper car filled with sand and three tank cars filled with ethanol ended up in a ditch.
The ethanol-filled tankers landed upside down, and there they sat, within sight of houses and a few hundred yards across a field overgrown with kudzu from the city’s railroad museum and AMTRAK station.
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The train was pulling 90 black tank cars filled with about two million gallons of ethanol, more than enough to fill three Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Fortunately, the train was moving very slowly around a curve and none of the cars punctured. No liquid spilled, no fire ignited, said Spartanburg Fire Chief Marion Blackwell.
Investigators with the Federal Railroad Administration are still trying to determine what caused the engine to leave the track, but the wreck highlighted a safety debate that’s arisen as the amount of crude oil and ethanol the nation transports by rail has increased exponentially with the country’s energy boom.
The Department of Transportation has proposed new rules to improve oil and ethanol train safety in the wake of derailments in recent years that have killed dozens, caused evacuations and spilled millions of gallons of oil and ethanol.
Transportation safety officials say trains are transporting higher amounts of crude oil and ethanol on trains that can stretch a mile long. Tank cars aren’t built thick enough to prevent punctures and spills when they are involved in accidents, and trains are driving too fast through urban areas, officials say.
Last July, a train operator didn’t brake sufficiently when a 72-car oil train went around a curve in the Quebec city of Lac Megantic. The train derailed and cars exploded, killing 47 people. Fires burned for days and destroyed the village center.
One woman died and two others were seriously injured in June 2009 while they waited at a train crossing in Cherry Hill, Illinois, when an ethanol train derailed and caught fire. An ethanol train that derailed in Pennsylvania in 2006 spilled 485,000 gallons and caused a two-day evacuation in parts of the city of New Brighton.
In South Carolina, there have been 145 incidents involving transportation of Class 3 flammable liquids — which includes crude oil and ethanol — by rail since 1972, when the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration began keeping track of data.
No lives were lost in those incidents, but they caused $2.8 million in damages, according to PHMSA data.
The most devastating train accident in South Carolina since 1972 took place in Graniteville in 2005 when a Norfolk Southern train carrying chlorine — a Class 2 gas — crashed into an idle train.
One of the tank cars holding chlorine breached and released the gas into the air. The train engineer and eight others died and 554 people were checked at hospitals for breathing difficulty, according to an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.
“I thought the wake-up call here would have been the chlorine gas spill,” said Susan Corbett, president of the 5,400-member South Carolina chapter of the Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club has come out in support of the proposed safety rules, though the club’s stance is that it’s taken too long to draft the rules and will take too long to implement the changes over the next three years.
“Anytime you’re moving this stuff around, either by rail or by truck, there’s always a risk,” Corbett said. “It definitely is something that should be of concern for all of us because of the health risks and disasters.”
Trains carrying large quantities of ethanol travel through cities and towns in the Upstate more than 150 times every year. The routes run through the heart of Spartanburg and Greenville and through smaller towns like Williamston and Pelzer.
Most of the trains originate in Illinois and normally stretch 82 cars long, said Steven Hawkins, who as president and CEO of the Greenville & Western Railway Co., which owns and operates 13 miles of rail line from Pelzer to Belton in Anderson County, hauls the trains for the final leg of their trip.
The trains hold 80 cars of ethanol and two hopper cars, one at each end, filled with sand or gluten to act as a buffer between the “ignition source” engine and the hazardous materials cars, Hawkins said.
CSX runs the route from Illinois to Pelzer, where Hawkins’ Greenville & Western takes over, driving the final six miles to an ethanol plant in Belton owned by Lincoln Energy Solutions, a Greenville-based biofuel delivery company, he said.
That’s the route the train was following when it derailed in Spartanburg, CSX officials have said.
Greenville & Western runs about 150 routes each year with the hazardous material cars, he said.
The transportation safety board says the surge in ethanol production has altered the way ethanol is transported by rail. It used to be carried in smaller quantities, but now entire trains carry nothing but the flammable gas additive.
Ethanol rail transportation increased 500 percent from 2003-2012, according to the Association of American Railroads, while rail transport of crude oil increased more than 4,000 percent since 2008, according to Department of Transportation figures.
“While the soaring volumes of crude oil and ethanol traveling by rail has been good for business, there is a corresponding obligation to protect our communities and our environment,” said NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman.
CSX participated in the Department of Transportation review and analysis of the current transportation practices and tank car standards and works closely with first responders, communities, oil producers, tank car owners and other railroads “to make the safe transportation of these important products ever safer,” CSX spokeswoman Carla Groleau said.
In May, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx issued an emergency order for rail carriers to notify state emergency agencies when trains pass through their states carrying more than 20 cars of volatile crude oil harvested from the Bakken shale region in North Dakota.
The South Carolina Emergency Management Division received notice from both of the state’s major rail carriers, CSX and Norfolk Southern, that they don’t transport Bakken crude oil through South Carolina in those amounts, spokesman Joe Farmer told The Greenville News.
No such notification is required for trains carrying ethanol.
The Department of Transportation wants to phase out outdated tank cars — called DOT-111s — it calls vulnerable to puncture and explosion in a derailment.
Trains with any of the older cars would face speed limits of 40 miles per hour.
Tank car owners could retrofit the cars with a safer shell and better braking rather than switch to a new tank style. Trains that meet all standards could travel 50 mph outside of 100,000-population cities. Trains that don’t upgrade to enhanced braking systems would face a 30 mph limit.
The Department of Transportation would also require a risk assessment of rail routes and railroad conditions that high-hazard flammable trains use.
National ethanol groups balked at the safety proposals announced by the Department of Transportation, saying ethanol isn’t as volatile as Bakken crude oil and that the rules may paint with too broad a brush by classifying oil and ethanol together.
“Ethanol is a low volatility, consistent commercial product with a 99.997 percent rail safety record,” said Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association. “Unlike oil from fracking, ethanol is not a highly volatile feedstock of unknown and differing quality and characteristics being shipped to a refinery for commercial use.”
But ethanol and oil trains both use the DOT-111s that the NTSB called inadequate in the aftermath of the Cherry Hill ethanol disaster.
Only 14,000 tank cars of the 92,000 in the North American fleet are built to the latest industry standards, according to the Association of American Railroads.
The rules won’t change operations for the Greenville & Western because its train only travels 25 miles per hour and it doesn’t own any of the tank cars it transports, Hawkins said.
Tank car safety changes will be up to the shippers since they own most tank cars, he said.
Hawkins, who bought the short-rail line in 2006 after a 20-year-career in rail service, said he’s got a spotless safety record.
“We’re already at such a low speed anyway, not that we ever want to have that type of incident as has occurred, but at the slow speed that we operate, it would be a non-event,” Hawkins said.