There is more than just corn growing in small Midwestern towns across the United States. Ethanol production facilities are popping up almost overnight. These facilities produce jobs, which stimulates the local economy, and are touted as reducing the nation's dependence on foreign oil. Yet they pose serious threats to firefighters.
According to the Renewable Fuels Association, 13 billion gallons of ethanol are produced annually from 154 refineries in operation, with more than 56 under construction or expansion.
As many know, ethanol is made from corn. There are two types of processes: wet processing and dry processing. Dry processing is the most common method used and involves grinding the corn to a flour. The flour is mixed with water into a mash. A few more items are added including anhydrous ammonia for processing. The mix then is dried, fermented and distilled, out of which CO2 is produced as well as the end product 200-proof ethanol. The CO2 is stored on site and transported for consumer use. The ethanol is denatured with 5% gasoline to make it undrinkable. At this point, the 95% blend is stored in large tanks to await shipment.
While these facilities can look relatively small and unassuming, they contain not only the obvious flammability hazards but also some toxic and corrosive hazards. The major flammability hazards include ethanol and gasoline. Both are ignited easily and stored in large quantities on site. The tanks should be labeled with the product identification and most likely an NFPA 704 label. Some facilities will store the product temporarily in railcars, which helps limit the over aggregate storage of the ethanol fuel blend. The railcars can move in and out overnight.
One hazard that often surprises fire officers is the storage of chlorine. Chlorine is highly toxic and used in the water treatment process prior to mixing. Chlorine can be stored in one to six cylinders, depending on delivery cycles from the supplier. In some cases, the storage quantities exceed the exempt amounts as specified in the fire codes. During an inspection, check that the dispensing cabinets meet the code requirements for gas cabinets.
Additionally, a large quantity of anhydrous ammonia is stored on site. This storage will be in a large bulk tank or in smaller nurse tanks throughout the facility's property. Although ammonia carries a green non-flammable gas placard, it is far from that. Ammonia has toxic and flammable properties. As a liquid or gas, ammonia will burn skin on contact.
Corrosives used in the cleaning part of the production are another hazard. They can be stored in large bulk containers and include acids like sulfuric acid and bases like sodium hydroxide. The dangers with these products are mostly skin-contact hazards. However, they will react when brought into contact with water, creating a very dangerous inhalation hazard.
Fires breaking out during the drying process are common. If the proper amounts of water are not added when heating the mash, the mash can reach its ignition temperature. These fires can be difficult to reach and extinguish.
Because these facilities grind and store corn, dust explosion is another hazard. Anything in dust form can fuel an explosion. Large bulk storage of corn is required in the process and poses a great risk to firefighters during response.
But the risk and need to prepare extends well beyond the ethanol plant's fence line. In fact, it extends well beyond the corn-growing regions of the Midwest.
Ethanol-blended fuels typically have 95% ethanol, known as E-95, and are shipped via railcars or over-the-road trucks. Ethanol is one of the most common hazardous materials transported by rail. These railcars will carry a red flammable liquid placard number 1987. Communities that have a rail line running through them are seeing a dramatic increase in the transportation of ethanol. And these trains aren't just passing through. Large amounts of ethanol-laden railcars awaiting delivery to the refineries are being stored within communities across the country. On any given day a community can have up to 15 cars lined up. The location of these staging locations can vary. Some are out in the country, others are located in the middle of a busy city.
Fire departments can request information on these cars from the shipper, as well as daily inventories at these staging locations. While there can be a large number of cars at these locations, at least the fire chief will know the aggregate quantity at a given time.
Over-the-road haulers will do shorter shipments from the ethanol plant to the refinery. They carry the same placards as railcars but this transportation mode increases the risk for a potential accident.
Typically, blends of gasoline and ethanol other than E-95 are completed at the loading rack when preparing a load to go to the gas station. A point of caution is that there is no standard for the placard requirements for a tank truck filled with E-85, 85% ethanol. In some cases, the transporter will use 1203. The U.S. Department of Transportation requires a new placard for E-85 shipments, which will be 3475, to be implemented by 2010.
These ethanol-blended fuels raise an important response issue. The basic difference between the ethanol (alcohol) and gasoline (hydrocarbon) is their ability to mix with water. Ethanol will mix readily with water whereas gasoline does not. When water is added to ethanol-blended fuels, the ethanol and gasoline will separate. With the new solution, gasoline will float on top and the ethanol and water mixture will be below. Once the gasoline is removed, either by fire or evaporation, the ethanol remains. This presents two major issues: seeing the fire in daylight and what type of Class B foam can be used.
Once the gasoline burns off, you are left with a very clean-burning alcohol fire. These flames are nearly impossible to see in daylight. Firefighters often rely too heavily on what they see and take an aggressive response in lieu of a defensive position to focus on evaluation as the first step. Using a thermal camera will identify the heat from the flames. Looking for rising thermal currents from the spilled area is an excellent way to identify the hazard if a thermal camera is unavailable. Also, listen for a distinct boiling sound from the liquid; boiling also might be visible on the surface and appear as rough texture. One old but reliable technique is to use a straw broom. With turnout gear and SCBA in use, hold the broom's straw end at arm's length and approach very slowly towards the spilled area. If there is fire there it will ignite the straw.
All Class B foams are not the same. Many departments have geared up for the gasoline (hydrocarbon) type of response with AFFF foam. Based on a recent study by the Renewable Fuels Association and the Ethanol Emergency Response Coalition, the only Class B foam that works on the an ethanol blended fuel fire is the alcohol-resistant AR-AFFF. With the standard AFFF the water is sucked away from the foam by the ethanol thus very quickly dissolving the foam blanket.
It is important for fire chiefs who have an ethanol-producing facility within their communities or mutual-aid districts to complete a preplan of the facility. Team up with the facility to properly identify all of the hazards associated with the production of the ethanol. It is also important to conduct drills with the facility staff to develop relationships and trust prior to an incident.
Those chiefs with bulk storage in their communities, either by tank or railcars, also must create preplans outlining the response. They, too, should train with the responsible parties and develop critical response criteria focusing on safety.
Greg Hayes has 16 years in the emergency service and management field. He has served as assistant chief. Hayes teaches widely in Minnesota fire service, as well as for public and private agencies throughout the Midwest.
A video was produced for emergency responders to show the results of all types of Class B foams. It can be downloaded at www.ethanolrfa.org/industry/resources/safety.