According to the American Coalition for Ethanol, 125 ethanol-production facilities across 20 states pumped out 5.9 billion gallons of the grain-alcohol fuel additive in 2006. There also are 76 new plants under construction in 23 states. Richard Jaehne, director of the Illinois Fire Service Institute at the University of Illinois, says the fire service needs to take notice.
What hazards does ethanol pose?
It is the supply chain from production to mass distribution to local terminals to retail distributions to the vehicles themselves. We’re putting these plants in places where the corn or switchgrass grows. Rural departments are not accustomed to large industrial plants, and they don’t have the kind of infrastructure to handle those facilities. If you went to a petroleum refinery you’d see 16-inch water mains. At some ethanol plants, you are looking at 4-inch water mains.
Once they are on the roads, the challenge becomes how do we know what’s in a vehicle. Ethanol in 20-gallon [containers] is probably not going to be a huge problem for the fire department. But if you mix it as you might with multiple fuels — you have cars that have electric motors with high-amperage charge systems, hydrogen which may be in 4,000- to 5,000psi tanks — we get one of these intramurals like we see on the road all too regularly. Now you are not just dealing with different kinds of seatbelts and airbags, but fundamentally different kinds of fire protection issues. What are the real issues to ensure we can use this product safely? Frankly, I don’t think we have all the answers. Where we are now is trying to figure out what the questions are and figuring out how to answer those. We need to work with communities to ensure that will be part of the discussion when they consider what rules will be applied in the establishment of a new production facility. Illinois has some 21 proposed plants. If all those go into production, that’s 4 billion gallons of annual production created in Illinois and distributed throughout the Midwest.
How urgent is it to figure out what regulations are needed?
We’ve got to begin to answer these questions and make sure we have minimum safety standards in this decade. The federal goals are to nearly double our production.
Which government agencies will take the lead?
What we need is a rich, open dialogue to look at this from all perspectives. Where we need regulatory issues addressed, then we ought to take those to the appropriate committees. Frankly, all the regulations in the world never stopped an accident. We have to understand the risk and put in an effective risk-management strategy. That will include regulations and standards for these plants that will allow them to contain whatever happens. I don’t think the sky is falling with ethanol. But it is something we are going to have to take seriously, because it is going to be here for the foreseeable future. We need to create partnerships to ensure that public safety is enhanced, not just the economy, even though we are bringing all this stuff in and producing it.
What is the one thing the fire industry needs right now?
We have to force the public safety questions into the ethanol equation. That’s a series of questions that may require regulation or local agreements, but we have to ask how do we ensure public safety is maintained when we add this production, distribution and commercial use.
Will that dialogue happen proactively or in reaction to a large disaster?
I always believe that if you bring the right information and people together, you can begin to work on an issue before a disaster happens. Will there be a disaster? Frankly, when you put that much ethanol in production and on the road, something is going to happen. That doesn’t mean it isn’t safe, but it does mean that some catastrophic event could occur that we’ll learn from. I don’t want to wait for that and I don’t think it takes that. But I don’t believe that communities see all the risks that are associated with ethanol.
What is the fire service doing?
Ansul and the [ ] recently did a test on the appropriate foams. That’s important to understanding the foam requirements. The Renewable Fuel Association is finishing training videos dealing with that. I talked with several state and Congressional members on three different committees — energy, agricultural and transportation — all of them said they hadn’t looked at it from the safety perspective. The fire service is responsible for bringing our public safety concerns to leadership.