Deadly train accident continues to be investigated

By Kris Bevill | June 03, 2009
Report posted June 29, 2009, at 12:18 p.m. CST

The deadly Canadian National train derailment involving 14 tank cars loaded with denatured ethanol remains under investigation.

On June 19, a 114-car CN train traveling east from Freeport, Ill., to Chicago reportedly hydroplaned, causing 14 of its cars to derail. Each of the 14 cars was loaded with approximately 30,000 gallons of denatured ethanol. Twelve cars caught on fire and it is believed that most of the 360,000 gallons of ethanol in those cars were consumed in the fire. The remaining two cars were damaged and leaked an estimated 55,000 gallons to 75,000 gallons of ethanol into the surrounding soils and waterways.

As a result of the intense fire, one motorist was killed, several witnesses were injured and 600 nearby homes were evacuated. At least 26 fire departments responded to the fire call. The blaze was allowed to burn so as to lessen the environmental impact on a nearby creek and was monitored from a distance by firefighters.

Despite steps taken to protect the nearby waterways, a large fish kill was identified by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources on June 21 and is believed to be related to the ethanol spill. If the die-off is proven to be related to the tank car spill, CN may be held liable for any and all costs to remedy the damage. The Illinois EPA has requested the state attorney general's office to require the rail company to take soil samples from the path the spilled ethanol traveled to the creek and perform necessary clean-ups, as well as conduct a survey of community water supply and test the dead fish to determine if the die-off was related to the ethanol spill. If determined that the spill was responsible for the fish kill, the state's EPA office has requested that the rail company restock the aquatic life in the Rock and Kishwaukee Rivers. CN could not be reached for comment on the investigation or the accident.

While this particular accident is not the fault of the ethanol producer, various industry members have said the incident should be used as a reminder that safe transport of the fuel should be a top priority and first responders should receive ethanol-specific training. The Renewable Fuels Association, along with the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the International Liquid Terminals Association and others, previously formed the Ethanol Emergency Response Coalition to focus solely on the training of first responders. Kristy Moore, EERC co-chair and RFA technical services director, said that while the industry has a great safety track record, it is important to prepare for accidents because when they do happen, they are very hazardous. "Just over 10 billion gallons (per year) of ethanol is produced in the U.S. and it all has to be transported to customers, so at some point in time, all 10 billion gallons is on the road, or rail or water," she said. "Safety is an ongoing project. We can never quit from it being priority No. 1. We do an excellent job, but we can always do better."