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Moving oil by rail: unsafe at any speed?

As Lac-Mégantic searches for a way forward, more troubling questions emerge


 
Unsafe at any speed?

Photograph by Ian Willms

Maude Verreault doesn’t want to talk about the past anymore. She has told her story so many times already. A waitress working at the Musi-Café in Lac-Mégantic one Friday night, she went outside for a smoke break. Moments later, a runaway train carrying 72 cars of crude oil derailed, killing almost everyone inside the restaurant, but sparing her life as she ran from the flames. “We know what happened,” she says. “After that, it’s, what are some concrete things we will do to advance?”

In a town of 6,000, where seemingly everyone lost either a close friend or relative, emotions differ on every street corner. A middle-aged couple sat down one night in a pizza place on Laval Street, quietly holding hands across the table. When their food came—a large pizza with a side of pasta salad—they hardly budged. The two just held hands, staring into each other’s tear-filled eyes for almost an hour as the food became cold.

There was anger, largely directed toward Edward Burkhardt, president of Rail World Inc., the parent company of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic (MMA) Railway. Burkhardt showed up in Lac-Mégantic several days after the explosion, explaining that he could accomplish more working from his office in Chicago. One local kept shouting at him: “You’re a rat.” Burkhardt, meanwhile, appeared to cast blame on the train’s engineer—a man he had earlier described as a hero—for failing to apply handbrakes on enough railcars to prevent the train from rolling down the hill, which regulations require. He also blamed firefighters who shut off the engine while battling an earlier fire, thereby deactivating the air brakes.

He accepted little responsibility for the role his company played. “A corporation is a bank account in a lock box at the post office. It doesn’t do things. People do things,” Burkhardt told Maclean’s last week at breakfast in a Sherbrooke hotel lobby. He left the next day without addressing the local media again.

But a lawyer for the train’s lone engineer this week warned about Burkhardt’s apparent rush to judgment, adding that his client is “devastated” by what happened and is co-operating with authorities. Meanwhile, there remain many other unanswered questions about the role of MMA and the regulators charged with overseeing it—particularly as the oil industry ramps up its use of railroads to move large volumes of explosive crude across the country every day. More importantly, more than a week after the disaster, it remains unclear what is being—or even can be—done to prevent a similar accident from happening again.

Crude-by-rail shipments are rising fast, up 66 per cent over the past year alone. And yet, there appears to be a dearth of studies, either by the industry or regulators, to determine whether such large volumes can be moved safely. Maryse Durette, a spokesperson for Transport Canada, says the transportation of dangerous goods, including oil and gas, is “strictly regulated” in Canada, and “is in line with international standards.” Critics, however, paint a picture of an industry and a regulator playing catch-up amid a suddenly booming sector. “We’re increasingly pushing into aging infrastructure—which in some cases wasn’t really designed for this—and it’s been done ad hoc without much overview,” says Keith Stewart, an energy policy analyst for Greenpeace Canada.

In Lac-Mégantic, there were obvious lapses—not the least of which was leaving a train loaded with crude oil parked unattended uphill from a town—that didn’t even violate so-called strict regulations. Those who ship goods generally considered far more hazardous than crude oil—like chlorine gas—say such mistakes likely wouldn’t have happened if the MMA train had been carrying other types of hazardous materials. “There were some practices that would have been unacceptable if they happened in our sector,” says David Podruzny, the vice-president of business and economics for the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada. “This idea of having goods moving with just one operator, and having railcars stored on a main line with nobody there—that would be unacceptable for the chemicals we carry.” Podruzny says Lac-Mégantic will likely act as a wake-up call for the oil sector. “There’s going to be a need to up the bar, by everybody,” he says.

One of the biggest issues that continues to confound critics is why Transport Canada has approved the use of older tank cars (used on the MMA train) known as DOT-111 in the U.S., or CTC-111A in Canada, to carry crude. “The susceptibility of [CTC-]111A tank cars to release product at derailment and impact is well documented. The transport of a variety of the most hazardous products in such cars continues,” reads a Transportation Safety Board report from 1994. Today, there are roughly 240,000 DOT-111 model tank cars being used in North America.

Yet, while all seemingly agree the cars are less safe and need to be replaced, there’s no talk of pulling the fleet out of service or refurbishing the older cars. Dennis Nuss, a spokesperson for refiner Phillips 66, recently told Reuters that retrofitting the existing oil tank car fleet “is not practical due to the costs.” Instead, the industry and regulators have agreed to replace the cars gradually with new versions that are equipped with thicker walls and protective shields at each end. All DOT-111s built since October 2011 conform to the new standard, but it will take a long time for manufacturers to meet soaring demand. A recent report in Railway Age, a trade publication, said that 80 per cent of all freight cars being built are tank cars. The Association of American Railroads estimates that “roughly half of the tank cars used to move crude today were built to the higher specifications.”

With two types of tank cars available, it’s essentially up to individual shippers to pick which ones they want to use and pay for. Rhona DelFrari, a spokesperson for Cenovus Energy Inc., says the oil producer currently has a mixed fleet since some of its DOT-111 tank cars were leased before the new specifications came into effect. However, she said all future leases, including “a few hundred” heated tank cars capable of carrying gooey bitumen, will be the new models. Cenovus plans to move approximately 30,000 barrels a day by rail by the end of the next year, up from about 6,000 today. To further complicate things, some of the newer, sturdier tank cars may not be suitable for use on all railroads since they are heavier and require sturdier tracks, according to Fiona Cook, also of the Chemical Industry Association of Canada.

Of course, it’s not clear if the stronger cars would have prevented the Lac-Mégantic disaster. “There’s no amount of tank car design that will give you zero risk,” says Podruzny. “You can always find a trestle high enough to damage a car that falls off it.”

As for the concrete answers that people of Lac-Mégantic so desperately seek to help move forward, they still seem frustratingly out of reach. As of early this week, 38 people were confirmed dead, while another 12 are still missing. The police have said the search for the other bodies has been slowed by the release of a toxic gas containing benzene (which is found in crude oil) near the site of the derailment.

Yannick Gagné, the owner of the popular Musi-Café where so many died, and Guy Ouellet, who lost his wife that night, are preparing a class-action lawsuit. Some of the defendants include the MMA railway as well as the train’s engineer, Tom Harding.

The citizens of Lac-Mégantic are also divided on the future of any train coming through town. The town’s popular mayor, Colette Roy-Laroche, has alluded to moving the tracks away from downtown and have trains pass through an industrial park—a costly venture. Business owners say the local economy depends heavily on what the trains can export to the United States. The sight of any train coming through town again, however, will spark a polarizing debate. One sign next to the tracks downtown reads in French: “You—the train from hell. Don’t come back here. You are no longer welcome.”


 

Moving oil by rail: unsafe at any speed?

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  2. Well perhaps now people will let the pipelines go through. transport of oil is necessary for our economy and pipelines are much safer and efficient way to transport large quantities around. Oil companies have silently been financing new rail lines across North America for years along with buying and increasing there rail equipment. Well I agree pipelines can pose their own set of dangers the jobs and revenue are very important to our Country. This is a tragic even that had more to do with under staffing of a train than it did with oil.

    • What do you think caused a whole block of houses to blow up in Califirnia ? An oil leak. We’ve got thousands of old pipelines that have buried in the ground for over fifty yrs, just waiting to blow up. The oil companies aren’t going to fix them till the blow up! It would cut into their bottom line. There is no safe way to transport oil, peroid. And we could have just as many jobs working on clean renewable energy, but big oil and their money won’t allow it.Wake up and leave something for your children to be proud of!

  3. Cory but Pipelines can’t haul Automobiles, Pickups, Double Stack containers, Grain, Coal, Iron Ore, Steel, Cement, Food, Wide Loads, Pipes just like the ones Keystone uses so Rail is the best form of long haul transportation.

    • They also can’t carry dangerous chemicals which are shipped in quantities too small for a pipeline.

  4. There are repeated reports of benzene being “cleaned up” at the disaster at Lac-Megantic. I know that benzene can, and is used as a diluent for shipping crude by pipeline and rail cars. However, I do not understand (and would like to know) how there could be benzene remaining after the derailment, if it was simply mixed with the crude.
    Has anyone investigated whether benzene was being transported in individual tank cars and indeed is this authorized by our transport agencies.

  5. There is no safe way to move oil. I live right across from a railroad Track and I worry all the time that something like this disaster will happen here one day. You can’t trust underground pipes because they Always leak sooner or later. We have got to get away from dirty oil and coal, it’s destroying our planet and no one seems to care. We certaintly don’t have any concern coming for the oil and coal companys, their rolling in the dirty money from it. It’s up to us to force our country to do the right thing and move in the right direction. It’s the only chance we have if we want to continue to live on this planet. We can’t trust our government, they’ve all sold us out to their paymasters. If anything is going to change it’s going to have to be us pushing them to do the right thing. What other choice so we have? I kinda like living on this planet and am ashamed with the mess we’re leaving our children and grandchildren.

  6. As a Chemical Sales person responsible for many hundred rail tankers of Chemicals tro the pulp industry bot to sell the finished product to industry and for my company to import the raw materials to manufacture the compounds one was Ethylene Oxide a spark detonated compound but one a raw material of most detergents since sunlight soap in the early 1900’s essential to daily use by all as is gasoline ( Benzene (DUH)) you wonder when a mistake will occur and a town be destroyed. by 1 rail car leaking and so exploding or in the Factories where Propane forklifts work one enters the EO Bunker some 100 feet below ground and ignites the storage container. Not on my Watch I am glad it is possible all efforts are taken to prevent this. But it will always remain a looming danger. We face daily in our cities with large Chemical Industries and alone the transit lines . history tells a very safe Rout to take is Pipe lines. Rail may employ some but few in Man hours per year compared to Pipe construction and servicing . WE must stop crying about what we do not comprehend and let history speak 1 incident is a learning issue 2 is unforgiveable if its the same Problem. We live in a world of HIGH RISKS . By the grace of God I was turned down for a Job in the Lab at CIL or union Carbide Dynamite Plant in St. Hubert or Henry ( nor certain any more) Quebec in 1970 it exploded the next day After I was told I was not accepted for the position I did go to work for the company that made me one of 5 Experts in my Field and paved my entire career path. A plant that had been part of the town site for many years made a small error and vanished along with its Employees. tragedy falls once more. Companies gambol on beliefs that their best efforts have designed a Perfectly safe system yet somehow an incident occurs . NO such perfection exists NO their is no rail car design that would have prevented that Fire or the end result as one would overheat the next and so forth each exploding in a slow but devastating procession of incendiaries . however perhaps reducing the environmental damage and allowing for better evacuation time . The end result is physical damage reduced human toll and that to me is worth so much more. than doing nothing. $$$$ do not return a loved one or replace that love, or reduce the flow of tears. its the same as an auto accident money does not quell the pain and deterioration you go thru in later life . I received $40,000 in 1968 for my wounds I had 4 spinal surgeries and now face a retirement on pills for spinal pain and the fear of paralysis perhaps sudden death from those injuries. $Million’s would not make up for what I am going thru I had forced retirement in 1990 and since then I am falling apart slowly. Compensation does What perhaps insult me . Or satisfy my need for pills Neither . nor will it justify the Lac Magantic disaster but it must be paid to penalize the negligence of the acts . Sad to say My tirade was not a cry for myself I am too far gone to care . Its to show the senselessness of this whole issue It should never have occurred but we too must accept the risks of Earning our incomes and it is often the Income from a dangerous cargo that is our task.
    I am In full agreement to the Words on the notice and My Condolences to the People of Quebec for this tragedy . I lived in Montreal for 5 years and love the people I have met in those years. I miss you all but I am too Politically Incorrect to live in Quebec.
    PIPE Lines are safer Rail is to often in the news .

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