Tug of War on Ethanol Trains Is All About the Perception and the Rating of Risk

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Part 2 of 2 Parts
Statistics show that freight railroads are a safe, dependable, economical and environmentally friendly way to ship all kinds of materials and products, including large volumes of hazardous materials we don’t want on congested interstate highways and densely packed urban streets. 
According to the Association of American Railroads, in 2010, 99.998 percent of hazardous material shipments by rail reached their destinations without a release caused by a train accident.  Rail hazmat accident rates have decreased 91 percent since 1980 and 38 percent since 2000, the association reports.
The safety record of the railroads is strong.  But it’s not powerful enough to overcome the fears of those who live, work and/or travel near the long-established railroad lines of eastern Massachusetts, which is an awful lot of people.  I learned that first-hand when lobbying recently for our client, the Massachusetts Railroad Association, the trade group composed of 11 of the state’s freight-hauling railroads.  On the association’s behalf, we appealed to legislators to reject Section 81 in the Senate budget in favor of the Section 162 in the House budget. 
Section 81 made it into the final version of the new Fiscal Year 2014 state budget produced by a six-member House-Senate budget conference committee in June; Section 162 did not. 
[NOTE: If Section 81 is enacted, it will become a de facto ban on delivering ethanol by rail to Massachusetts fuel terminals with ocean access.  This is a point I made in my previous post: “Governor Was Mulling Ethanol Shipments by Rail When Along Came that Train in Quebec,” July 20, 2013.]
After the conference committee budget was adopted on full votes in both branches, it was submitted to Governor Patrick for his review and approval.  Patrick vetoed Section 81 and suggested an alternative approach to state oversight of ethanol on the rails.  As of the date of this post, the clashing positions of the legislature and the governor on this issue have not been resolved; however, it looks like the legislature will override his veto of Section 81.
Interestingly, the rejected House measure, Section 162, resembled the alternative offered July 12 by the governor in that 162’s main thrust was to have the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency develop a comprehensive ethanol transport response plan.
At the State House for the Massachusetts Railroad Association, we’d point out that transporting ethanol to blending facilities by truck or barge presents its own safety and environmental challenges.  And we’d politely suggest that accidents involving large tanker trucks on highways have to be taken into account.  
A legislator or a legislative aide would frequently respond along these lines:
“That may be, but the problem with a train accident, even though it may be a rare event, is the size and drama of it.  It usually involves the derailment of multiple train cars.  With ethanol trains, it’s multiple tank-loads.  There are explosions, big fires, evacuations of entire neighborhoods.  A tanker truck accident, by contrast, usually involves just one truck.  It’s bad, but not that many people are affected at one time.”
[NOTE: There have been accidents involving ethanol trains in other states but never one in Massachusetts.]
This is all about how we perceive and weigh risks.  And how we remember bad events. 
Thousands of people die every year in crashes involving large trucks.  In 2008, for example, there were 4,066 large truck accidents that resulted in a fatality and 66,000 that resulted in injuries, according to the National Center for Statistics and Analysis.  We tend to forget stats like that.
But we never forget disasters like the one in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic on the night July 6.  Nor should we. 
Lac-Megantic is a tragedy of staggering proportions.  Knowing that some simple, common-sense precautions probably could have prevented it makes it even worse.  [Who signed off on parking a fully loaded freight train on a hill and leaving it untended for hours at night while the one-man crew went on break?]
Freight railroads will learn from Lac-Megantic, adopt new safeguards, and continue to play a crucial role in the economy of Massachusetts, the nation and the world.  They are too good at what they do, and too important in the larger scheme of our economy and our way of life, to become obsolete or to be legislated out of business.
Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., the “Business World” columnist at the Wall Street Journal said it best in his July 17, 2013 column, titled “Oil by Rail Is Here to Stay.” Jenkins wrote:
“The Lac-Megantic disaster may well boil down to a railroad industry that was unready for the opportunity that opened up in the past few years to carry large amounts of a hazardous substance on routes and lines laid down a century ago around which highly populated areas inevitably grew up…But Lac-Megantic will not prove a way station on the route to a carbon-free future.  More likely it will bring forth a serious campaign to make sure crude-by-rail is safe enough to become a permanent feature of a North American energy landscape being transformed by fracking.”
“Oil by Rail Is Here to Stay” may be found at:

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