Ethanol is going to be a harsh reality for this generation of the fire service and probably the next. Arguing about the politics is irrelevant. The decision has been made that plant safety and emergency response managers will have to adapt to the challenges of ethanol and other polar solvents.
In the United States alone, some 150 ethanol plants have sprung up, the majority of them in states where corn is king - Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and others. The problem is no one stopped to figure out what safety standards should apply. These plants work with chemicals that are not only flammable but reactive and potentially explosive.
The rural areas these plants are typically found in depend on small volunteer fire departments with limited experience in bulk flammable storage fires. Worse, these departments have even more limited resources when it comes to equipment and fire fighting agents appropriate to the task.
Industrial fires fueled by ethanol are already history. In May 2007 in Baltimore, a tanker truck overturned and burst into flames on a curving interstate ramp, killing the driver and sending a burning stream of ethanol into the street below. Two months later in Sioux Center, Iowa, ethanol being loaded into a rail car ignited, causing a massive blaze. Ethanol fires related to train derailments have been reported in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Thank goodness, very few people have been injured or killed to date.
Every step of ethanol production has points of vulnerability. At the plant, pure ethanol is mixed with five percent gasoline to produce a denatured product called E95. That makes the fuel unfit for human consumption. E95 is then shipped mostly by tanker truck to local terminals with loading racks.
Why not put it in a pipeline? The risk of contamination is too great. Every pipeline in existence has its problems with water infiltration, particularly at low points. Also, to fill a 24-inch diameter or greater pipeline flowing across the country would require a vast amount of ethanol, far more than is available at present.
Each blending terminal needs a special tank for ethanol. It does not have to be huge, since the ethanol is being blended with much larger amounts of gasoline. Environmental concerns require a floating roof tank. Water poses a contamination threat, so an external floating roof tank is out. Four or five different types of internal floating roof tanks exist. However, whatever design is chosen, to handle ethanol it has to be sparkling clean, almost hospital sterile.
Whether you build a special tank or convert an existing one on the premises, a visit from the fire marshal is a certainty. "What kind of fire system are you planning to use?" he asks. Relying on the existing fixed foam system piped to all the other tanks in the terminal might not be the answer the fire marshal wants to hear.
Most of those systems have been converted over the years from fluoroprotein foam to straight AFFF. Some even use alcohol-resistant AFFF. Testing proves beyond a doubt that it takes AR-AFFF foam to successfully extinguish an E95 fire. Unfortunately, AR-AFFF is not a "drop-in" solution. Existing fixed foam systems using fluoroprotein or AFFF may have to be modified to deliver foam at a higher percentage and flow rates.
Whereas three percent was adequate for gasoline fires, foam systems will have to operate at six percent to deal with ethanol. Existing application rates of .1 may have to increase to .2 or more. That means that existing piping is not sufficient to supply the foam solution or water now needed.
The solution is to hire a good consultant who can determine the simplest, most effective means to meet the new requirements and keep the fire marshal happy.
Okay, that covers the tanks. How about the loading rack itself? A loading rack can handle from two to as many as 14 trucks at one time. Most loading racks in America are equipped with foam systems, activated either by automatic sensors or manually by means of an emergency button.
Most of these systems were designed to handle hydrocarbon fires, not a polar solvent such as ethanol. That means the problems that made the fixed systems for storage tanks inadequate now extend to the loading racks too. Again, hiring a consultant is the best way to bring these systems in line with the new risks involved.
The solution may not be cheap. You may have to increase your water supply. You may need a bigger tank to handle the amount of foam needed. The type of foam used will likely have to change. Or, the consultant may recommend an alternative such as a dry chemical system that can be just as effective against an ethanol fire.
The companies making and blending the ethanol are not the only ones faced with changes in their fire protection practices. Most fire departments in America carry straight AFFF. If the fire involves ethanol, these departments might just as well leave their foam at the station.
That monster fire might not be at the refinery or the loading rack. A tanker truck loaded with E95 can overturn just as easily as a gasoline tanker. Or, maybe, a driver gets sloppy making a delivery and overfills the underground storage tank at a service station.
Even departments fortunate enough to have AR-AFFF in quantity may lack the training to apply it properly. Throw any foam, AR-AFFF or otherwise, directly into a polar solvent is as effective as chopping wood with a toothbrush. As the foam plunges beneath the surface, the polar solvent simply eats it away. AR-AFFF must be applied in a technical manner using a technique known as "swirling" in which the foam is shot against the inner tank wall to spread it across the surface more gently.
Ethanol travels by other means too. Trains visiting ethanol facilities come equipped with connections that can fill or unload 100 tank cars from a single point. The tank cars are linked by rubber hose, opening a whole dimension of concern in a derailment and fire. Bear in mind that ethanol ranks as the largest quantity of hazardous material shipped by rail today.
In 40 years as a firefighter, I have never been to a polar solvent fire - thank God! That is certain to change for the next generation of firefighters in America. Ethanol is the first polar solvent to be regarded as common. It is everywhere.
A wise man once said that a reasonable probability is the only certainty in life. That makes it reasonably certain that some day soon there will be an industrial fire on the front page of the newspaper involving ethanol. Unfortunately, the probability that the firefighters battling the blaze will have the tools and training they need is relatively low by comparison.