Ethanol fuels firefighting dilemma

Every day, railway tankers carrying ethanol from the Midwest roll through the Las Vegas Valley, bringing their eco-friendly cargo to the Las Vegas area and beyond.

But while the corn-based fuel might be better for the environment, if there were an accident and one of those tankers caught fire as it was traveling through the city, the Las Vegas Fire Department would not be able to handle it alone.

That is because the Fire Department does not use the alcohol-resistant foam that is effective against an ethanol fire.

"There has not been a need for it in the past," Fire Department spokesman Tim Szymanski said. "But we’re going to change over."

Some ethanol is dumped at the Calnev pipeline terminal near Nellis Air Force Base as it comes from the Midwest.

However, ethanol traveling through Las Vegas on its way to California — like the 270 such rail shipments of ethanol in 2006 — goes through the heart of the city and could present a risk if there were a fire.

With the increase in the amount of ethanol being transported countrywide, fire departments everywhere have had to address the potential risk of ethanol fires.

"The fire service as a whole is looking at it right now," Szymanski said. "It’s something new. And on something like this, you get the opinion of everyone."

The special foam comes in 5-gallon containers costing between $90 and $115, which is more expensive than the foam now being used by the city Fire Department.

Szymanski said fire officials are unsure how much the transition to the new foam will cost the department, because they are still deciding which brand to buy and whether they will need to equip all of their trucks with the new foam.

Additional costs could include new training for the firefighters.

Fire Department officials will make a decision on what changes to make as soon as they have considered their options fully, Szymanski said.

Until then, firefighters might not be able to put out an alcohol-based fire as quickly.

"Without the right foam, the Fire Department will not effectively be able to put that fire out," said Rich Duffy, assistant to the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters. "It puts the community at risk and the firefighters at risk. If you can’t quench that fire right away, people die."

The best the Fire Department could do is try to contain the fire and wait for it to burn itself out, Duffy said.

Fire Department officials are confident firefighters would be able to handle an ethanol fire, Szymanski said.

The department has access to additional firefighting resources from Nellis Air Force Base and McCarran International Airport.

Also, the city can get help from the Clark County Fire Department, which has been using alcohol-resistant foam for years, said Richard Brenner, the department’s hazardous materials coordinator.

"There are lots of flammable liquids out there that are alcohols and water soluble, so we put it in the budget and got it taken care of."

When conventional foam is used to put out chemical fires, a special combination of foam, water and air is used. But an alcohol fire, such as one involving ethanol, sucks the water out of the foam solution, making the foam ineffective, Brenner said.

Traditional gasoline is not an alcohol and does not present a problem when using firefighting foams.

Even a gasoline fire with a low concentration of ethanol, such as the 10 percent to 15 percent ethanol gasoline provided at many fuel stations, does not require alcohol-resistant foam. But the large rail tankers carry much more concentrated ethanol, 85 percent to 95 percent.

On average, 1.2 million gallons of ethanol, about two or three tankers a day, are brought into Las Vegas every month, primarily via railroad.

The ethanol is mixed at terminals with gasoline piped in from California before it is transferred to individual gasoline stations to help the fuel burn cleaner.

The only major local railway incident in recent years happened Aug. 27, 2007. A runaway tanker carrying toxic chlorine gas eventually was stopped without derailing or causing damage.

While there have not been any recent tanker fires locally, at the end of 2007 there were three major fires in other parts of the country involving tankers carrying high concentrations of ethanol.

In Missouri, a tanker truck carrying ethanol crashed, killing the driver. The fire forced two elementary schools to evacuate and damaged a bridge.

In Ohio, a train derailed and the flames forced 1,000 people from their homes. And in Pennsylvania, nine tankers carrying ethanol derailed, causing serious delays.

All the fire departments called to those fires had the alcohol-resistant foam and were able to put out the fires.

Contact reporter Scott Spjut at or (702) 383-0279.

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