TV-6 Investigates: Troubled Tank Cars - News and Weather For The Quad Cities -

TV-6 Investigates: Troubled Tank Cars

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Millions of gallons of flammable Ethanol and crude oil move throughout the QCA every week.

A new TV-6 investigation finds the tank cars carrying those hazardous chemicals have a troubled safety record, all while the demand for Ethanol and crude oil has only grown.

Ethanol is big business in the Quad Cities.

Five plants produce millions of gallons each year.

The plants rely on railroad tank cars to get their product to market.

The industry estimates at least two thirds of all Ethanol is shipped by rail.

All of it in a general service tank car called the DOT 111.

It's a tank car that's been criticized by the government's transportation investigator since 1991.

For most of us, sitting at a rail crossing waiting for a seemingly endless line of tank cars to pass, is an inconvenience.

"We don't even think anything about them," says Tiskilwa's Marjory Harmon.

She lives right across from the railroad tracks running through town and never gave tank cars a second thought as they wound their way through Tiskilwa. Until two years ago, when a train pulling DOT 111 tank cars carrying Ethanol derailed.

"As it was moving down the track it was getting closer to the homes that are just right across from it," says Harmon.

Tiskilwa resident Wilbur Giltner says, "You could look East and see the fire and hear the roar of the tank car burning."

He says someone banged on his door around two that morning. Warning him about what happened. He stayed put, until one of the tank cars blew up.

"Just one big boom, it made all the windows vibrate, it got your attention," says Giltner.

The fire lasted nearly 10 hours. The National Transportation Safety Board report says 10 tank cars derailed that night. Nine leaked their Ethanol, causing the fire, and three of them exploded. All were DOT 111's.

"I thought that plate glass window was going to blow out," says Giltner.

The NTSB investigation blamed a broken rail for the accident. Making it worse were the performances of the DOT 111's. Seven of the nine cars suffered punctures and tears to their tanks. That's damage consistent with other accidents over the years. In fact, back in 1991, the NTSB released a study of DOT 111's. It concluded these tank cars had thinner outer shells and were more prone to puncture damage than other tank cars. A finding it repeated in five other accidents before Tiskilwa.

DOT 111's make up the bulk of the tank car fleet. The Association of American Railroads says 228,000 of them are out on the rails. 92,000 carry hazardous chemicals like Ethanol and crude oil. A tank car standards committee made up of industry groups already ordered builders back in 2011 to build new tank cars with thicker tanks and shielding on the car's ends. However, that committee did not recommend retrofitting thousands of existing tank cars. It was too expensive, and the cars didn't pose enough risk. That was a recommendation the NTSB blasted, writing, "...The decision thus ignores the safety risks posed by the current fleet..." Shippers often ship an entire train of Ethanol or crude together. It's cheaper, but with each tank car carrying 30,000 gallons, those trains carry millions of gallons of hazardous materials. Now, the railroads are pushing for a phase out program. Ethanol producers are pushing back.

"It's going to be very difficult though if all of the sudden you're going to have to change over the existing fleet without causing bottlenecks in the distribution, not just of Ethanol, but oil, gasoline, chemicals etc," says Growth Energy CEO Tom Buis.

Growth Energy represents the Ethanol producers. Buis says the demand for tank cars to carry Ethanol and crude oil has outpaced the supply of new ones being built. If tank cars are forced out of service, less product can be shipped.

"We're very reliant on rail transportation to move Ethanol around to all reaches of the country," says Buis.

Big River Resources operates five Ethanol plants including one in West Burlington and Galva. It leases 600 tank cars to ship its Ethanol. It's waited two years to try and get 50 more. Buis says that situation plagues the Ethanol producers. It's the reason why Growth Energy has asked the government to study the issue further and not rush into new standards applying to all tank cars. It points out that there were only 11 notable derailments like Tiskilwa's between 2006 and 2012. Over the same time 1.25 million loads were shipped by tank car.

"Encourage DOT to take a more cautious long term strategy on moving this forward," says Buis.

While the debate simmers, the tank cars keep rolling down the tracks. Even in Tiskilwa, where residents have gotten used to the trains again.

"We had a sense of fear the very first few that came through, if they were noisy or you heard a lot of clacking, naturally you kind of froze up thinking oh no, is this going to happen again," says Harmon.

She says trains go through every day and nothing else has happened. Whether or not the tank cars passing through should be updated, is a question many don't have an answer for.

"I don't know, I would have to think about that quite a little bit," says Giltner.

They're just used to the sight of them rolling along.

Although the NTSB has warned about these tank cars for years, the railroad industry also points out that 99 percent of hazardous shipments arrive at their destination without a problem.

The agency working on the new tank car rules is taking comments from the public at this web site.

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