Fire companies from Willsboro, Westport, Moriah, Port Henry, Essex, Lewis and Elizabethtown gathered recently for training in controlling an ethanol fire.
Energy concerns, Middle East conflicts and home-grown independence are all reasons why our nation needs to develop an energy policy that works for the people, the environment and for long term sustainability.
Alcohol-based fuels and vegetable fuels are both made from plants. Vegetable oils are being treated and made into bio-diesel. French fry cars! Corn is being processed into alcohol then denatured to make it into a non-drinkable alcohol based fuel. Denaturing is simply adding some hydrocarbon based fuels, like gasoline to alcohol making it a fuel and non-drinkable alcoholic liquor. The gasoline you buy at the pump today is a mix of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline.
Using corn as a fuel is good for the midwest farmer, but is hurting the eastern and western dairy farmers who use grain in their feed rations. The cost of corn has risen and it eventually affects food prices. Increased corn prices, along with the western drought have increased beef and pork prices. Food should be for feeding people and animals, not fuel.
Switchgrass is an option that many energy scientists are looking at. Once the enzyme is found that can break down the switchgrass and convert sugars to alcohol, grass may be the fuel source instead of corn. Prairie land could be planted to switchgrass and harvested for fuel use.
The benefits would be long term perennial grasses planted instead of rotational crops, so carbon would be tied up, erosion reduced and overall fuel and energy used on the farm for crop production reduced. Corn could once again be used for food, hopefully reducing dairy farm feed costs.
Switchgrass is also an excellent pheasant cover grass if managed for wildlife habitat. Cutting the grass after the bird’s nesting period allows a new brood of birds to survive. Tall grass habitat is also made by simply not mowing some areas like along ditches, roads, stream corridors, and keeping conservation reserve fields for wildlife. Now midwest farmers would have two sources of income once again; grass for fuel and pheasant hunting which brings in millions to areas like South Dakota. When the prairie grass was plowed in and turned to corn ground, much of the bird’s habitat was lost. This would be a win-win for both the farmer and the pheasants.
On another side of the ethanol front is how to extinguish it when it burns.
There is a concern from fire departments, hazmat teams, and local officials on ethanol transports going through our area almost daily. Railroad traffic in our area has increased due to shipments of ethanol from Canada to Albany. Numerous unit trains are running up and down the shoreline of Lake Champlain daily. A unit train is one that is made up entirely of one type of rail car carrying usually one type of product. In our case, it’s a unit train with 100 cars, each holding about 29,000 gallons of ethanol, or 2.9 million gallons of ethanol per train.
Almost pure ethanol before it makes it to the fuel depots for remixing is 98 percent ethanol and 2 percent gasoline. This is a polar solvent, meaning it mixes with water. A prime example is a scotch and water cocktail served with ice, enjoyed on the back porch occasionally. Hydrocarbons separate from water and float. Alcohol mixes with water and that is a serious problem when trying to extinguish an ethanol fire. Fire departments will have a very hard time supplying enough water to dilute the ethanol volume involved in a train accident to reduce its flammability. A small leak is possible to dilute, but a car load is the problem.
To extinguish an ethanol fire, you need to blanket the fire with AR-AFFF foam, which stands for Alcohol Resistant-Aqueous Film Forming Foam. Alcohol resistant foam doesn’t break up in a foam blanket like regular foam. The bubbles in regular foam blankets will slowly dissolve and allow vapors to escape which could possibly reignite. And that is not cool when you are standing near a pool of ethanol!
Alcohol resistant foam is about $38 per gallon and a large fire could easily use more than 1,000 gallons, so the cost of extinguishing an ethanol fire may be out of reach for many fire departments and county hazmat teams. The other solution and possible outcome is to let it burn in place and protect the perimeter and surroundings. In the words of Dirty Harry: “A man must know his limitations.”
At a recent Essex County ethanol fire training program in Willsboro, fire companies trained in the use of AR-AFFF foam. Teaching firefighters how to apply foam so there is an uninterrupted blanket to cool the fire, and eventually provide a layer of foam over the fuel to hold down the vapors so they won’t reignite was the mission of the instructors. They did a superb job.
Fire companies from Willsboro, Westport, Moriah, Port Henry, Essex, Lewis, Elizabethtown and elsewhere attended this training sponsored by the Essex County Emergency Services and the NYS Fire Academy. Many of us were mixed with firefighters from other companies so we would get to work with folks outside of our own department. I worked with a great crew from Lewis.
As the saying goes, we train for the worst and hope for the best. We are trying to be prepared because there is a lot of denatured booze, cruising through our neighborhoods!
Rich Redman is a retired District Conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and an avid outdoorsman. His column will appear regularly. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.