Advance Notice: Briefs

Nessel joins coalition opposing transport of cryogenic ethane in rail tank cars

By: - February 23, 2023 2:01 pm

Mario Tama/Getty Images

In the wake of the derailment, and subsequent environmental disaster, in eastern Ohio earlier this month of a train carrying hazardous materials, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel joined a coalition of attorneys general last week in opposition to a request that would allow more potentially dangerous chemicals to be shipped across the United States, potentially through Michigan.

Led by Maryland Attorney General Anthony G. Brown and New York Attorney General Letitia James, Nessel was one of 14 AGs on Thursday submitting comments opposing a request by Gas Innovations LNG Refrigerants Inc. for a special permit to ship cryogenic liquefied ethane in rail tank cars from a facility in Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania to undisclosed locations in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.   

Ethane is a colorless, odorless, and highly flammable hydrocarbon gas commonly used in the petrochemical industry. 

Attorney General Dana Nessel | Ken Coleman

According to a press release from Nessel’s office, shipping cryogenic ethane presents significant safety challenges, “as any release of cargo is likely to lead to the formation of extremely cold and highly flammable ground-hugging vapor clouds that present unique safety risks to nearby communities and emergency first responders.”

According to the coalition’s letter, Gas Innovations’ application to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) should be denied because it fails to provide basic information concerning the proposed shipments and would risk the safety of communities along rail lines nationwide. 

“The application fails to clearly identify what, if any, operational controls – measures like speed limits and breaking requirements that are designed to decrease the risk of derailment – would apply to shipments under the special permit,” said the release. “Even more troubling, it does not identify the destinations for its liquefied ethane cargo. Instead, the application vaguely suggests that shipments will be delivered to “petrochemical, or LNG liquefaction facilities,” in Mexico, Canada, and along the Gulf Coast of the United States.”

Without a more specific description of the destinations for these shipments, the coalition argues that PHMSA’s ability would be hampered to determine whether the special permit would place an inequitable burden on communities already dealing with environmental justice concerns, particularly along the U.S. Gulf Coast.  

“Shipping liquefied natural gas by rail has not been proven safe for communities along the train’s routes,” said Nessel. “There have already been more than a dozen derailments this year of trains carrying hazardous materials, which illustrates the danger of transporting these chemicals by rail.”  

The attorneys general also argue that PHMSA should reject the application as it maintains rail shipment of ethane is as safe as the shipment of LNG (liquefied natural gas) by rail. PHMSA approved regulations authorizing the shipment of LNG by rail in 2020, an action that many of the attorneys general joining the letter opposed at the time.

Subsequent studies by the National Academies of Sciences have called that decision into question and the PHMSA itself in 2021 proposed suspending the regulations

“It would make little sense to allow Gas Innovations to claim that its proposed shipments are safe based on an analogy to that Rule,” stated the release.

Joining Nessel in the comments are the attorneys general of Maryland, New York, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.

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Jon King
Jon King

Jon King has been a journalist for more than 35 years. He is the Past President of the Michigan Associated Press Media Editors Association and has been recognized for excellence numerous times, most recently in 2021 with the Best Investigative Story by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Cleary University. Jon and his family live in Howell, where he also serves on the Board of Directors for the Livingston Diversity Council.