Ethanol distributor a preplanning worry for Pa. firefighters

By Patrick Lester
Morning Call (Allentown, Pennsylvania)

LEHIGH COUNTY, Pa. — Some firefighters in southern Lehigh County fear they could be reduced to helpless spectators if called to fight a fire at Buckeye Pipeline in Lower Macungie and Upper Milford townships.

Fire officials who have long had concerns about their ability to put out a blaze at the fuel distribution hub on Buckeye Road are growing increasingly uneasy since the company began using ethanol at its 180-acre property in June.

They say they may not have the equipment — the special foam that they need to fight an ethanol fire is about two hours away — or an adequate water supply to do their job.

It's a dilemma that's getting the attention of local government officials representing residents who stand to be evacuated if and when a fire occurs.

"I don't think it's a big secret to say that if any one of those tanks catch fire, it would be one heck of a fire," said Daniel DeLong, Upper Milford's manager.

"The concern is they won't be able to put out a fire," E. Keller Kline III, chairman of the Lower Macungie commissioners, said at a recent board meeting.

Buckeye spokesman Stephen R. Milbourne said representatives from his company are willing to listen to the concerns; a meeting to hash them out is scheduled for Oct. 15. He said the company already meets Department of Transportation fire protection regulations and he's confident it can adequately handle a fire.

Regulations require that "each operator shall maintain adequate firefighting equipment at each pump station and breakout tank area." The equipment must be in proper working condition, marked as firefighting equipment and easily accessible.

Milbourne couldn't recall a serious fire or evacuation in his 19 years with the company.

"Clearly, we try to operate our business safely and hope we do not have an occurrence," he said. "Our emphasis is certainly on prevention. We believe we are adequately prepared in the unlikely event that there would be a problem."

The firefighters aired their most recent concerns after Buckeye, which distributes fuel via pipeline and stores it in tanks, began adding ethanol that retailers need to meet fuel standards.

The company now stores ethanol in one of its many storage tanks. The product is shipped by rail and received at a railroad siding at the Buckeye complex.

Firefighters need a special foam to fight ethanol-fueled fires and Buckeye, which at one time kept the foam at its property, no longer has it.

Milbourne said the foam has a "shelf life and environmental concerns" and that Buckeye donated its supply to the county years ago. He said Buckeye contracts with a company that has foam available in the Philadelphia area and in Paulsboro, N.J. He said it would take about two hours for the foam to be transported to Buckeye.

Firefighters also are concerned about the amount of available water at the Buckeye property, according to a letter to Lower Macungie Township officials penned by Brent McNabb, assistant chief of the Lower Macungie Fire Company, after officials toured part of the property on Aug. 5.

McNabb wrote that there is only one fire hydrant near Buckeye and that it "cannot supply enough water to provide fire [protection] for this facility."

The state Department of Environmental Protection has ordered Buckeye to stop using one supply well because of groundwater contamination at the property. An estimated 48,000 gallons of gasoline discharged from a storage tank in Oct. 2005, prompting an environmental cleanup that continues.

Mark Carmon, a spokesman for the DEP's Northeast Regional office, said the agency does not want the well used because it could affect the contamination plume.

Eric Supey, a manager for DEP's Environmental Cleanup Program, explained the concerns in a letter to fire officials.

"Since the fire suppression well is capable of pumping at a very high rate ... it is possible that it could draw contaminated water ... into the deep aquifer which could result in the unfortunate scenario where the well would actually be adding gasoline to a fire," Supey wrote in the letter, obtained by The Morning Call.

McNabb contends that Buckeye has made "absolutely no effort to correct the problems." He wrote that a major fire at Buckeye would require a large evacuation that would include several housing developments, as well as multiple schools and Lower Macungie's municipal building and library. Portions of Macungie, Emmaus and Upper Milford also would be affected.

Among the concerns in a large-scale fire are hazardous gasoline fumes spreading to residential areas.

Milbourne said Buckeye staff "clearly believes" firefighters will have enough water. He said fire companies have access to two ponds and a stream on the property in addition to a 12-inch water line extended to the property in 2005.

"The worst case scenario suggests we need about 2,000 gallons per minute of water to fight what they call a worst-case scenario fire," Milbourne said. "We have [a water line] that gives us 1,500 gallons per minute."

Lower Macungie fire officials declined requests for interviews. Officials from Vera Cruz Fire Company in Upper Milford did not return phone calls seeking comment.

David Lesak, the former chief of both the Lower Macungie Township Fire Company and the Lehigh County Hazardous Materials Team who now serves on the township's public safety commission, said the water supply at Buckeye has "always been an issue over there."

He said the foam is crucial.

"In terms of fighting those kind of tank fires, you have to wait until you have an adequate supply of foam," he said. "You can't start until you have that available.

"And if you don't have the water, you can't do much of anything."

Copyright 2008, Morning Call (Allentown, Pennsylvania)

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