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Board Meeting: Railroad Accident Report: Derailment and Hazardous Materials Release of Union Pacific Railroad Unit Ethanol Train in Graettinger, Iowa, March 10, 2017 - Opening Statement
Robert L. Sumwalt
NTSB Boardroom and Conference Center

​Good morning and welcome to the Boardroom of the National Transportation Safety Board.

I am Robert Sumwalt, and I’m honored to serve as the Chairman of the NTSB. Joining us are my colleagues on the Board: Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg, Member Earl Weener, Member Bella Dinh-Zarr, and Member Jennifer Homendy.

Today, we meet in open session, as required by the Government in the Sunshine Act, to consider the derailment of a Union Pacific Railroad train near Graettinger, Iowa, on March 10, 2017.  The train was hauling 98 tank cars loaded with undenatured ethanol. Twenty tank cars derailed, causing 14 of them to release about 322,000 gallons of ethanol, fueling a post-accident fire.

Nobody died and nobody was injured, although three nearby homes were evacuated, and the accident caused $4 million in damage, not including the environmental remediation.

NTSB Investigators have worked hard to tease out the safety lessons of this derailment, pointing toward safer transportation in the future.

Today, we will discuss the condition of track in the area of the derailment known as the Estherville Subdivision.

After the accident, Union Pacific undertook an impressive program of corrective actions. In just one example, crews replaced at least 8,600 cross-ties in 2017.

Such ambitious catch-up work is noteworthy, necessary, and appreciated. But rail infrastructure generally deteriorates over time, not overnight. As they say, no good deed goes unpunished; the extent of post-accident actions, while welcome, also hints at  the inadequacy of U.P.’s maintenance and inspection program, pre-accident.

The railroad is supposed to look for and fix unsafe conditions as a matter of course. Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) oversight is supposed to ensure that the railroad at least maintains the tracks to meet the minimum track safety standards specified in the regulation.

Today, we will discuss the inadequacy of Union Pacific Railroad’s track maintenance and inspection program, and the FRA’s insufficient oversight.

This derailment also provided us an opportunity to revisit fiery releases of ethanol from breached DOT-111 tank cars. These tank cars must be phased out of ethanol service by mid- 2023. One thing that we examined was the industry’s progress in meeting this deadline. 

As we will discuss, if this unit train consisted of new DOT-117 tank cars, the tougher design would have mitigated or prevented product loss due to tank shell breaches, head breaches, and damage to top fittings.

But the reality is that most tank cars used for ethanol transportation are still DOT-111s. And although retrofitting or replacement with DOT-117 specification cars is required by 2023, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) has created no intermediate milestone schedule.

The stage is set for the possibility of a missed deadline.

Finally, this derailment brought to light one more fascinating wrinkle, the behavior of un-denatured ethanol in this release.

A denaturant is an agent added to ethanol to make it unappealing, harmful, and/or potentially lethal to drink. In practical terms, once the ethanol is no longer drinkable, it can be offered as fuel without being subject to beverage tax requirements.

Denatured ethanol is not like decaffeinated coffee. Ethanol doesn’t start out with denaturants in it that you need to distill out. You add something to “denature” ethanol, usually something harmful or lethal if ingested.

Denaturing ethanol is, quite simply, a policy-driven process that separates ethanol for beverages from ethanol for fuel or other industrial uses. I did a little digging and turned up this bit of historical perspective:

According to Time magazine, in 1927, the government changed the formula for denatured ethanol. The reason: under prohibition, people had begun drinking household denatured ethanol. The previous formula was simply not harmful enough to deter people. So we made it twice as deadly.

Then as now, the purpose of denaturing was to create different categories of ethanol for different uses. Back during prohibition, one category was an illicit beverage. Only by poisoning the illicit product, could one render it legal for sale.

Today, we denature ethanol to create fuel ethanol, which therefore is not taxed as a beverage. In fact, often we add 2.5% of one kind of gasoline to ethanol, to make it suitable under the law for mixing with another kind of gasoline.

None of this policy falls within the NTSB’s mission, until denaturing affects transportation safety.

In the Graettinger accident, the ethanol released was undenatured, and this seems to have had a beneficial effect on safety. Investigators found milder damage in this accident than in previous accidents with the same type of tank cars, but with denatured ethanol.

So we will consider whether it might make more sense to leave ethanol undenatured prior to shipment, from a transportation safety point of view.

Today, the NTSB staff will briefly present the most pertinent facts and analysis found in the draft report. Our public docket, available at, contains over 1,200 pages of additional information, including photos, interviews, and inspection records. 

Staff has pursued all avenues in proposing findings, a probable cause, and recommendations to the Board.

The order of today’s meeting will be that staff will present a topic-by-topic summary of the investigation.

We on the Board will then question staff. We will also propose and vote on any amendments necessary to ensure that the report as adopted truly provides the best opportunity to enhance safety.

Now, Managing Director Dennis Jones, if you would kindly introduce the staff.