Most of Florida East Coast Railway's train tracks in Miami-Dade County pass through highly populated urban areas. If a gigantic tanker of liquid natural gas were to spill, ignite, or explode, it's fair to assume a lot of homes or innocent people would stand in harm's way.
But according to multiple public documents the watchdog news site Florida Bulldog dug up this morning, the railroad has already been transporting liquid natural gas (LNG) tankers through Miami-Dade to PortMiami and Hialeah. The railroad's former parent company, Fortress Investment Group, just so happens to own a natural-gas-pumping subsidiary, New Fortress Energy, which operates a gas plant in Hialeah.
Per Federal Railroad Administration records, the natural-gas cars are making 15-mile trips from Hialeah to PortMiami through areas with 9,500 people per square mile. The trip from Hialeah to Port Everglades in Broward County takes 28 miles and passes through similarly populated areas.
Spokespeople for Miami-Dade County Emergency Management did not immediately return messages from New Times today about when the county became aware of the natural-gas shipping plans. It's worth noting the urban tracks pass through densely populated areas without so much as a fence — earlier this year, a New Times reporter witnessed an SUV barely avoid smacking into a train on those tracks.
As Florida East Coast lobbied for months to build the privately owned passenger train Brightline from South Florida to Orlando, rumors had swirled across South Florida that the railroad also wanted to use its tracks to carry natural gas. Those rumors appear to have been true: The railroad announced in the November 2017 issue of the trade journal Railway Age that many of its tracks through Florida — from Jacksonville to Miami — would begin carrying natural-gas trains.
That announcement somehow eluded South Florida reporters until the Bulldog dug it up today.
"We are proud to be the first North American railroad to operate its entire main line fleet on LNG,” the railway's CEO, Fran Chinnici, told Railway Age. (The railroad has also begun powering its trains with LNG as well.) “We hope that our efforts will help other railroads and industries with this paradigm shift.”
A railroad spokesperson declined to speak to the Bulldog. Fortress still owns the Brightline train itself but sold its stake in the Florida East Coast Railway, specifically, to Grupo México Transportes in 2017.
The federal government approved the railroad's natural-gas shipping plans in March 2017, documents show.
This is reportedly the first time liquid natural gas has been shipped by rail anywhere in the United States — a fact that worried some rail-safety experts who spoke to the Bulldog because outside safety experts are not positive that LNG is safe enough to ship through populated areas. The gas is supercooled into liquid form for travel purposes, but if a tanker were to be punctured, the train could explode. Though many scientists believe the gas to be safer than propane, it is still virtually impossible to extinguish once ignited.
Environmentalists have long been skeptical of attempts to ship other energy sources by rail. Green activists often refer to crude-oil tankers as "bomb trains" and warn that crude oil should not be shipped near populated areas. The Natural Resource Defense Council warns that 25 million Americans live within a crude-oil-train blast radius.
According to Martin County documents the Bulldog published, Florida government entities have been aware of the natural-gas shipping plans since at least 2015. A PowerPoint presentation that year predicted dire consequences for Martin County residents if a tanker were to blow up: In a worst-case scenario, 396 people living in a "red zone" near train tracks along Dixie Highway in Martin County could be injured or killed if a tanker were to explode.
A bulleted list attached to the presentation raises other concerns:
• LNG is a new hazardous chemical being added to rail transportation
• Population centers, neighborhoods are close to these railway corridors
• Risk increases as the amount and frequency of hazardous materials are transported through our community
• LNG along same rail lines as high-speed passenger rail increases risk of accidents
• Increase in potential for accidents to occur = unquantifiable
• Such emergencies can exceed local response capabilities
• Need for training and preparedness plans to respond to such emergencies
Of course, the railroad and its federal regulators insist the new transport method is safe. Natural gas has also been shipped by truck for years, and it is significantly safer to ship the substance by train than by risking the tankers on a crowded highway. There have been no reported natural-gas accidents on railways.
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Demand for natural gas is high in Caribbean nations. Rumors had swirled among environmentalists for years that the railroad's operators were positioning themselves to become a major natural-gas exporter if the federal government loosens regulations on overseas gas shipments.
The railroad is arguably the most consequential company in the history of Florida. Henry Flagler's railway brought northern settlers to South Florida and turned the region into the urban center it is today. With both Brightline and natural-gas shipping plans in place, the railroad seems to be mounting a new pitch for relevancy in the 21st Century.
Of course, it helps that the company also got a handy assist from Florida Gov. Rick Scott. The Miami Herald reported earlier this month that Scott and his wife invested in Fortress, the railroad's former parent company, despite also playing a role in approving the construction of Brightline.
Correction: This piece previously misstated the current owner of Florida East Coast Railway.