Quebec train disaster was waiting to happen

In North America’s worst rail disaster since 1989, a train carrying fracked oil from North Dakota exploded in the small lakeside town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, on July 6. More than 50 people were killed. Many questions remain unanswered — not least of which is why corporations see their profits from the export of crude oil as more important than human life.

Fracking for oil in North Dakota is the latest expansion of the process known as hydraulic fracturing — fracking — that has laid waste to vast areas of Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Texas, Oklahoma and other U.S. states for the benefit of natural gas and oil company profits. The residents of Lac-Mégantic are the latest victims.

The Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, a subsidiary of Chicago-based Rail World Inc., owns nearly 500 miles of track through Maine, Vermont, Quebec and New Brunswick. Last year, the company got a government go-ahead to operate with just one engineer aboard its trains.

On July 5, a train owned by MMAR with 72 cars carrying 50,000 barrels of crude oil parked in Nantes, Quebec, seven miles west of Lac-Mégantic. The engineer set 11 hand brakes on the train and left for the night, adhering to company policy that left the train unattended.

A short time later, a fire broke out on the train and firefighters responded, dousing the blaze and turning off the train’s engine, which had been left running to ensure the air brakes had enough pressure.

Left on a 1.2 percent grade — relatively steep in railroad terms — the unattended train barreled downhill. Cars derailed in Lac-Mégantic, igniting a fire and a series of major explosions that destroyed a significant portion of the center of this small town. A third of the town’s 6,000 residents were evacuated from their homes.

The Musi-Café, a popular downtown bar near the epicenter of the blast, was crowded with people when the explosion took place. Area conditions were so hazardous that it took six days for emergency crews to finally reach this location to search for human remains.

Corporate crime scene

The rail company CEO, Ed Burkhardt, who finally visited the site several days after the accident, was met by enraged residents demanding answers. He was quick to blame the engineer, but admitted that company policy was to leave trains unattended once the brakes were set. Burkhardt also stated that the train line lacked a signal system that would have warned a dispatcher of a runaway train, and that the train’s automatic braking system for runaways — “dead man switches” — only work when the train’s engines are running. (Reuters, July 10)

Guy Farrell, deputy director of the Quebec steelworkers’ union, Syndicat des Métallos, blamed the incident on inadequate regulations to keep rail companies like MMA in check. Farrell warned of the danger of living near railroad tracks and called for tighter regulations. (AP, July 11)

Five years ago, a train loaded with crude oil would not have run through Lac-Mégantic. But today, natural gas and oil companies’ push to extract unconventional energy, including tar sands crude, has led to a 260-fold increase in crude oil rail use — from 500 carloads annually in 2009 to 140,000 carloads this year.

Adding to the potential for rail disasters, the Canadian government cut annual funding for railroad regulatory oversight by 30 percent while adopting a policy of allowing rail companies to regulate themselves. The Lac-Mégantic disaster was the seventh case of a runaway train in Canada since 2006. Most involved brake system problems.

Both the Transportation Safety Board of Canada and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board have raised concerns over the strength of the DOT-111 cylindrical tanker cars that carry crude. They call for tougher standards in light of the rapid expansion of crude-oil rail transport.

The problems may only get worse. Construction of a 1,440-mile rail line to ship millions of barrels of tar sands oil from Alberta to Alaska is in the works by a group of Canadian businessmen hoping to circumvent public opposition to pipelines.

In true capitalist fashion, supporters of the expansion of the Keystone XL pipeline to carry Alberta tar sands to Texas refineries are using the Lac-Mégantic disaster to bolster their arguments against any further delay of its completion. Yet even though the XL pipeline remains on the back burner, significant crude-oil spills from existing pipelines occur on a regular basis. On March 29, the Pegasus pipeline owned by ExxonMobil ruptured, spilling thousands of barrels of tar sands crude in the central Arkansas city of Mayflower.

However, opposition to pipelines and rail transport of fracked gas and oil has been growing. Even two weeks before the Lac-Mégantic disaster, six members of the environmental group 350 Maine were arrested in Fairfield, Maine, for blocking an MMAR train carrying fracked oil to a New Brunswick refinery.