What if terrorists targeting Boston attacked a train carrying 2 million gallons of a highly flammable, hard-to-extinguish fuel?
That’s one frightening scenario a coalition of activists believes could result from Global Partners LP’s plan to transport ethanol to its storage terminal in Revere using Commuter Rail lines.
“This ethanol train is basically a bomb train. It’s there for anybody” to attack, said Roseann Bongiovanni, associate executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative, in an interview earlier this month with a group of activists from the Chelsea Creek Action Group.
Bongiovanni said she was alarmed by the arrest — only days after the Boston Marathon bombings — of two men in Canada who planned, with Al Qaeda support, to derail a passenger train between Montreal and New York, she said.
She’s afraid of what might happen in her backyard, where Waltham-based Global Partners has applied for a state permit allowing it to transport ethanol by rail to its terminal on Route 1A, alongside Chelsea Creek, where the fuel is mixed with gasoline to comply with Clean Air Act standards.
“It’s a disaster-movie kind of scenario,” said East Boston resident John Walkey, another member of the coalition, in the group interview.
Whether intentional or accidental, a derailment of an ethanol train could be devastating, Walkey said, pointing to the 2007 overturn of a gasoline tanker truck in Everett that shot flames down Main Street and a 2011 tanker truck crash on Route 1 in Saugus that sparked an eight-alarm blaze.
Edward Faneuil, executive vice president, general counsel, and secretary at Global, did not respond to calls requesting comment on the firm’s plan.
Opponents said the rail lines Global would use to transport the ethanol from the Midwest through Western Massachusetts and on to Revere pass through more than 90 cities and towns in the Commonwealth, areas where they say about 200,000 residents live within a half-mile of the tracks.
One half-mile is the distance the US Department of Transportation recommends for evacuation in a rail-car fire.
North of Boston, the train would pass through densely populated areas near important commercial sites and public facilities, opponents said, including the Chelsea Produce Market, one of the largest fruit and vegetable distribution centers in the country.
“It’s going to go past the Assembly Square development in Somerville, which we’re dumping millions of public and private investment dollars into. It’s going to be going past two of the sites they’re proposing for casinos,” Walkey said. “All the different schools have been consolidated in Chelsea, and you’ve got all these brand-new schools that are right along these rail tracks.”
Magdalena Ayed, leader of the Maverick Association of Residents, said her 4- and 6-year-old sons attend Manassah E. Bradley Elementary School in East Boston, overlooking the Global facility.
“I don’t feel that safe right now, because the storage tanks are so close,” Ayed said, “but add to that the ethanol trains coming into the communities — my heart’s going to be in my mouth all day long.”
Speaking before the Boston City Council last year, city Fire Marshal Bart J. Shea said ethanol was “more susceptible to flash fire and ignition than gasoline” and “more susceptible to ignition from static energy,” according to a copy of his written testimony.
Shea said ethanol — the same type of alcohol found in intoxicating beverages — mixes easily with water and will continue to burn even when heavily diluted.
To extinguish an ethanol flame, firefighters must use large amounts of alcohol-resistant foam, which would quickly be used up in the conflagration that could result from a train carrying 1.8 – 3 million gallons of ethanol, Shea said.
A state Department of Transportation safety report released March 29 found the route to be generally safe but recommended maintaining the condition of tracks and improving safety and security measures. The report noted, though, that under federal law “the Commonwealth and the communities within it do not have the power to require additional security and safety measures of either Global or the railroads.”
The report, mandated by state legislators from the affected communities, encouraged federal agencies to listen to residents’ concerns and said state agencies concerned with public safety should assist municipal governments in preparing to respond to accidents.
The safety report was the last hurdle before the state Department of Environmental Protection could issue the license Global needs. With that license, Global could begin work on a $2 million project to improve a rail car unloading facility at the Revere terminal and divide a spur connected to the rail line into two tracks for fuel unloading.
Now, the only hope the plan’s opponents have for intervention lies in the State House. Staci Rubin, an attorney at Roxbury-based Alternatives for Community & Environment, said opponents hope a state Senate budget amendment will bar the Department of Environmental Protection from issuing licenses to facilities handling ethanol in densely populated communities.
An earlier effort in the state House of Representatives to attach such an amendment to the budget failed, but state Senator Sal N. DiDomenico, an Everett Democrat, and state Senator Anthony Petruccelli, a Democrat from East Boston, plan to introduce a new Senate amendment this week, Rubin said Monday.
“We’re just hoping that this legislation gets passed, or that Global’s going to withdraw their proposal and continue to operate with the ethanol coming in by barge,” she said.
Petrucelli would not comment Tuesday on what might be required under an amendment still being drafted, but he issued a statement saying he and DiDomenico “remain committed to doing whatever we can to protect the public safety of our communities.”
In a separate statement, DiDomenico said he and Petrucelli were planning to file amendments.
“I have been working closely with Senator Petruccelli and other legislators on this issue, and we have been exploring a number of ways to address it in the Legislature on a state level,” DiDomenico said. “We plan to file amendments to the Senate FY14 Budget as soon as it’s released.”
Jovanna García-Soto, director of the environmental justice department at the Chelsea Collaborative, said in the group interview that she doesn’t trust Global, having seen the firm’s response to questions after a 2006 spill of diesel oil from a pipeline it shares with Irving Oil.
“They said it was a mistake when we questioned them,” García-Soto said. “Imagine if another mistake happened with the ethanol train. That would be the destruction of our communities.”