116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
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Iowa retailers, cities and agriculture groups watch, wait for news about rail strike
Union for about 700 Iowa rail workers opposes congressional involvement
CEDAR RAPIDS — Chlorine to treat public drinking water usually comes to Cedar Rapids in one-ton cylinders on semi-trailers from a distribution center in Chicago.
But the distribution center gets the chlorine by train.
If a national rail strike were to shut down rail transportation — especially if the strike lasted multiple weeks — Cedar Rapids might have to figure out other ways to get chlorine or ration supplies, Utilities Director Roy Hesemann said.
“We keep a supply here, but we are also limited by our process safety management plan for how much material we can have on site,” he said. “With chlorine being a hazardous chemical, we don’t want anymore than we really have to have.”
Iowa retailers, agricultural groups and cities expressed relief Wednesday as the U.S. House passed a bill that would block a nationwide rail freight stoppage. The U.S. Senate is expected to vote on the bill next week.
⧉ Related article: Congress acts urgently to avert rail strike next week
Local railroad union representatives say a strike, which could happen as soon as Dec. 9, may be the only way to get railroad companies to provide engineers and conductors more sick time without penalties.
“Quality of life is a very big thing to our membership and that’s what is entailed in the issues at hand,” said Chris Smith, lobbyist for the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) union, which represents about 700 railroad workers in Iowa. The union issued a statement Wednesday opposing congressional involvement.
Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, says he’d like the workers and railroads to come to a resolution on their own, but he’s relieved to see a bill to prevent a strike. More than 80 percent of ethanol moves by rail, he said.
“If there was a rail strike for more than about 10 minutes it would be devastating for our industry,” he said. “It would also be very costly to consumers.”
Without trains, Iowa’s 40 ethanol plants could not ship out their fuel to facilities that blend it with gasoline to sell at pumps across the country. If ethanol blends aren’t available at gas stations, motorists would have to buy fuel without ethanol, which costs up to 40 cents more per gallon, Shaw said.
“With consumer sales, you’d probably miss out on sales (during a rail strike,) but somebody could put off buying a new air fryer,” he said. But once motorists buy non-ethanol gas, “that volume is lost. You can’t make it up.”
Ethanol plants would have to stop production during a freight rail stoppage, Shaw said, because there are not enough idle tanker trucks and drivers to move ethanol around the country.
Many Iowa retailers get their goods by truck, not train, but they still are watching negotiations between railroads and workers.
Boxes of cereal, cans of soup and just about everything else you’d buy at Hy-Vee comes on semi-trailers, spokeswoman Tina Potthoff said in an email Wednesday. But the grocery chain also has more than 70 Iowa locations that also sell gas and other fuels that could involve rail transport.
“We are closely monitoring the impact this developing situation could have on fuel sources,” Potthoff said.
Cedar Rapids Utilities officials have talked with the city’s chlorine vendor about contingency plans if train deliveries to distribution centers are halted during a strike, Hesemann said. This might call for shipments by truck directly from the manufacturing site, he said.
The city could reduce chlorination without harming the safety of drinking water because Cedar Rapids also uses ultraviolet light for disinfection.
“We feel they both keep the water safe,” Hesemann said. “It would be something we’d have to work out with Iowa (Department of Natural Resources) if we did have to cut back on chlorine.”
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