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Public weighs in on moving ethanol shipping from trucks to trains

Thursday, August 12, 2010 by Josh Rosenblatt

Last night Travis County residents got their first chance to weigh in on a proposed ethanol transfer facility along Decker Lane on Capital Metro’s rail lines. At the public meeting held at Gus Garcia Middle School in East Austin, members of the community told the Cap Metro Board of Directors that they worried about possible pollution and safety repercussions in the area.


The proposed project would involve the construction of a rail staging area and a single-story employee building off of Decker Lane, which would allow companies to use trains rather than trucks to ship ethanol to Austin from San Antonio.


Ethanol is a motor fuel component produced from crops like corn that is currently found in 70 percent of all gasoline sold in the U.S.


Currently, between 45 and 50 truckloads of ethanol are shipped from San Antonio to the Flint Hills Resources facility on Johnny Morris Road every weekday. Under the proposed plan, four to five trains a month would bring in the same amount of ethanol. The ethanol from those trains would be moved into the same distribution tank currently being filled with ethanol from the trucks.


According to Charles DeWeese, Cap Metro’s freight rail manager, switching from trucks to trains would make the shipping of ethanol in the region safer, reduce traffic congestion, improve air quality, and generate revenue for the transit authority.


He said that moving freight by rail is 10 times safer and four times more fuel efficient than moving it by trucks and could reduce greenhouse emissions by 75 percent. He also said using the rail line would create a new revenue stream for Cap Metro. “Shipping ethanol by rail,” DeWeese said, “will make freight pay for itself and be profitable.”


But several people in the audience expressed concerns about the safety of shipping ethanol by rail, especially since the rail line the trains would be using runs straight through the city of Manor and past several schools, subdivisions, and community centers. Many said they were particularly concerned about evacuation plans and fire readiness should a derailment or spill occur.


“We have four poorly paid firefighters,” said Manor City Manager Phil Tate, “and should an accident happen, I’m not sure they’re capable of handling it. And Austin oftentimes can’t get there because of the traffic. So I urge caution.”


Earlier this week, Travis County Pct. 1 Commissioner Ron Davis expressed his reservations about the project in a press release, stating that “over the past several years, ethanol accidents on highways, along railroads and in storehouses and refineries have triggered evacuations and fires from Texas to Minnesota.”


DeWeese did his best to allay people’s fears about the proposed project. He said that the facility would come equipped with trained and prepared local emergency responders, spill containment, a foam fire suppression system, and several other safety measures.


But according to Davis, information like that had not been made available to those in the community who wanted it. He told the board that they had a responsibility to communicate with the people living in the area and pointed out that for many, last night was the first they’d heard of the project.


Ultimately, however, the decision will be Davis’ and his fellow county commissioner’s to make, not Capital Metro’s. As DeWeese pointed out, under the transit agency’s Common Carrier Obligation (from United States code), it is federally obligated to provide use of its rail line “on a reasonable request” to shipping and/or rail companies.


Capital Metro hopes to begin construction on the installation in 2011.

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