Four news articles enclosed.–RA
1. As hope fades, a search for answers
Railway, fire chief dispute details surrounding crash as death toll climbs and authorities add to list of missing
By Kim Mackrael and Justin Giovennetti in Lac Mégantic, Guy Dixon in Toronto; The Globe and Mail, July 9, 2013
The chairman of a rail company at the centre of a devastating blast is accusing firefighters of shutting down the locomotive hours before it rolled into LacMégantic. Ed Burkhardt, head of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, has been under pressure to explain how an unmanned freight train carrying combustible cargo careened down the track into the small Quebec town and exploded.
Mr. Burkhardt said he believes the train’s air brakes were released because firefighters turned off the engine when they extinguished a fire a few hours before the blast. “They went out there by themselves, shut the engine off, doused the fire. A very small fire,” he said in an interview with The Globe and Mail on Monday from Chicago.
His comments drew swift reaction from a local fire chief, who rebuffed Mr. Burkhardt’s account and promised to “clear this all up in the next few days.” Patrick Lambert, the chief, said he could not speak in detail about the crash because of the continuing investigation.
While Mr. Burkhardt faulted firefighters for failing to rouse the train’s engineer after he had parked the train and went to a local hotel, another company representative said the firefighters did contact an MMA dispatcher to report the problem. Yves Bourdon, who sits on the railway’s board of directors, said firefighters called a dispatcher based in Farnham, Que., to alert him of the trouble when the fire broke out at about 11:30 p.m.
The dispatcher then phoned a track-repair worker who went to the scene, Mr. Bourdon said. The track worker, whom Mr. Bourdon declined to name, travelled to the tracks in Nantes, but was not familiar with how locomotives work and would not have known how to start the engine again if it was shut off. He said the track worker phoned the dispatcher back before he left, “and then he went home.”
“After the firefighters left, he looked around and he left. He advised the dispatcher and that was the end of it, for him anyway,” Mr. Bourdon said. “He was the last person to see the train.”
He said the dispatcher had been contacted by the Sûreté du Québec. A spokesman from the police force would not confirm it had interviewed the dispatcher specifically, but said investigators are speaking to all MMA employees who work along the route from where the train started in Farnham to the site of the crash.
Lac-Mégantic mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said she has had a meeting with MMA managers. “It was a satisfactory meeting, but this being an initial occasion, we didn’t go into details,” she said. .
Mr. Lambert, the fire chief, questioned Mr. Burkhardt’s knowledge of the fatal night. “He can come down here and we’ll discuss the difference between chairs and Eskimos, I don’t think he knows the difference.”
2. Path to disaster
For more than a century, the railway in Lac-Mégantic, Que., has been at the economic heart of the tiny town it bisects. Now it’s the site of terrible heartbreak, and a story is beginning to take shape of what led to a deadly explosion that destroyed the downtown core, displaced thousands and claimed at least 13 lives. Local official and residents are asking why their concerns about aging tracks and oil tankers weren’t acted upon before the disaster.
By Sean Silcoff, Kim Mackrael and Justin Giovennetti, The Globe and Mail, July 9, 2013
Last weekend’s rail disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec has torn apart the long-standing relationship between a town and railway that defined the municipality for nearly 130 years. But even before Saturday morning’s deadly derailment of more than 70 oil cars and the ensuing fire that has killed upward of 13 people, forced the evacuation of 2,000 residents and destroyed about 30 buildings, safety concerns about the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway had been mounting in the area.
Through interviews with officials and residents and a review of official documents, a picture has emerged of a vibrant Eastern Townships community that had grown increasingly worried about the state and path of a train track that wound through town, crisscrossing city streets and the now-destroyed downtown. Those trains were getting longer, carrying highly flammable crude oil in outdated containers and travelling on tracks that often needed repair.
“It concerned a lot of people to see hundreds of tankers in front of your face every day,” said Jean St-Pierre, a professional recruiter whose wife owns the town’s Hotel Le Chateau. “You didn’t feel comfortable being so close to this.”
The geometry of the track is among the many things transport officials are investigating, chief federal investigator Donald Ross of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada told reporters on Sunday.
Despite concerns about the tracks and the tankers running on them, there is no indication either might have made a difference. “I can’t imagine a tank car that’s solid enough to withstand what happened here,” MM&A’s chairman and controlling shareholder, Ed Burkhardt, told La Presse.
Not long ago, town officials were openly praising MM&A, a short-line railway that was teetering on the edge of financial ruin before making a few key moves in recent years, including securing a contract to move oil from the western United States to the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, N.B. In August, 2009, Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche officially inaugurated a new MM&A spur into a local industrial park, praising the development – largely government financed – for bringing a much-needed economic boost to the town.
But those views would give way to a more troubled relationship and concerns about other sections of the company’s track through town.
Last fall, the municipality and the county, MRC du Granit, issued a report on “serious erosion” of a 30-metre segment of track that they feared threatened a culvert on the western edge of town just steps from a beach and campground. They pressed MM&A and federal authorities about the effects a derailment of “toxic products or contaminants” could have on the area, according to municipal records. In early 2013, the federal government told the town that MM&A had corrected the problem.
A few months later, the town again pressed MM&A for changes, this time to fix a part of the track on the eastern edge of the town just past the site of last weekend’s derailment. The town council agreed in a unanimous motion passed on May 6 to ask MM&A to fix a “considerably damaged portion of track after the city received numerous complaints.”
Last month, 13,000 litres of diesel fuel spilled from rail cars in town.
Further up the line in the municipality of Nantes, where the derailed MM&A train began its fateful journey, the company has recently done repair work. On a spot on the track where nine oil tankers now stand, it appeared dirt and rocks between the railway ties had been dug up and scooped to either side of the tracks – deep holes, three across, one on either side of the track and one underneath. Resident André Lavigne said the holes were the result of repairs the rail company completed about two weeks ago. He said the train used to tilt as it passed his home, and the company had come in to adjust the tracks so the cars would stand more upright.
“They left them like that a year, and then after they came and repaired them two weeks ago,” his sister-inlaw Diane Lavigne added.
Meanwhile, 20-year-old Lac-Mégantic resident MarcAntoine Lecours said a friend who works on the tracks often expressed safety concerns. “A month ago, he told us, ‘The tracks here are finished,’” Mr. Lecours said. “We spoke about it already, they need to be changed right away. He’s been working on the tracks for six years and he said he never saw tracks as bad as those ones.”
Other residents said the municipality had pressed MM&A to move the tracks away from the middle of the town or rebuild them so they traversed more gradual curves. Ms. Roy-Laroche refused to address these and other related questions with reporters on Monday. “Listen, do not ask me any more questions about the company. I just can’t talk about it,” she said.
Ray Lafontaine, a local entrepreneur whose son, two daughters-in-law and an employee were lost in the disaster, lashed out at MM&A this week and criticized officials for allowing the railway to run trains carrying petroleum through town. But Mr. Lafontaine was not just an angry resident affected personally: his construction company had performed maintenance work on the tracks, which he told the Sherbrooke Tribune were “like rolling on overloaded tracks that should have been changed a century ago.”
Mr. Lafontaine, overcome by emotion, declined to speak on Monday with The Globe and Mail. “The tracks are not adequate and we know because we often repair the tracks for them,” he told The Tribune. “A week ago, they had a derailment. Another time, a foot of track was missing. … When a piece of your track is missing, something isn’t right.”
It has emerged that the tank cars involved in the disaster were an older type that regulators had criticized for years. The surviving cars that were pulled from the blast had stencilled markings indicating they were the type that have been described as prone to puncturing because of their thin metal shells. Over the years, regulators have tried to limit their use, citing poor design.
In an interview, MM&A director Yves Bourdon defended the company’s maintenance record. “If any location needs repair, it will be repaired,” he said. Mr. Bourdon confirmed that some people wanted the route through town changed, but added: “They might have tried, but who’s going to bear the cost? In Canada, cities were built around rail tracks, and so it’s a fact of life. … We can’t afford [to move them], nobody can afford to do that.”
3. A railway’s turnaround becomes a nightmare
By Guy Dixon, Transportation reporter, The Globe and Mail, July 9, 2013
Until this week, Edward Burkhardt kept a low profile among railway executives. From his Chicago office, the rail veteran runs a small transportation empire, trying to renew short-line networks and newly privatized freight lines from Canada to Australia to the U.K.
Yet the horrific explosion and widespread destruction of the small Quebec town of LacMégantic, caused by a runaway train carrying 72 cars of crude oil early Saturday morning, has suddenly put Mr. Burkhardt and his holding company, Rail World Inc., under intense glare.
Rail World owns the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, which began operation 2003 after the previous owner of small, regional lines between Montreal and Bangor, Me., went bankrupt. Mr. Burkhardt’s company already had three lumber mills in Maine, and a small rail network seemed a good fit.
But the venture quickly went sour. The financial troubles of local mills and a steep drop in lumber demand when the U.S. housing market crashed forced MM&A to look for other products to ship. One of those was crude oil.“
The business situation in Maine turned bad right from the start, with the bankruptcy and closing of two of the paper mills,” Mr. Burkhardt said in an interview Monday. The 2008 recession only exasperated the downturn.
“We had a business problem right from day one.”
The railway has recently been on the upswing, pushed partly by crude oil shipments going to Irving Oil’s refinery in Saint John, N .B.Most oil companies see oil-by-rail as a stopgap measure as major pipeline proposals such as TransCanada Corp.’s Keystone XL to Texas and Enbridge Inc.’s Northern Gateway to the Pacific coast drag in the regulatory stages amid opposition from environmental groups and native communities.
“Every barrel of new supply that comes on in western Canada is going to move by rail in the next couple of years,” IHS CERA Senior Director Jackie Forrest said in an interview. “We do not have enough pipeline capacity.”
The investigation into what caused a driverless 73-car train carrying crude oil, operated by Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, to careen into the center of the eastern Quebec town of 6,000 and explode early Saturday will determine what regulatory changes will be necessary, said Joseph Doucet, dean of the Alberta School of Business at the University of Alberta. “Maybe that will lead to some narrow regulatory or other kinds of changes. And whether it leads to a policy change, that’s a bigger question.”
Production of Bakken crude from North Dakota, the light, lowsulphur grade that the doomed Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway train was loaded with, has climbed exponentially in recent years, and much of that production moves to market by rail. Some of that output competes with Canadian crude for space on the Enbridge pipeline system to the U.S. Midwest and southern Ontario. Rail shipment costs can be $10-$15 per barrel higher than with pipelines, depending on the destination, Ms. Forrest said.
MEG Energy Corp, an oil sands producer, depends on rail shipments. “We definitely view pipelines as being the best, most efficient and safest means of moving product, but rail has a very good safety record and the economics of reaching new markets are still very attractive,” MEG spokesman Brad Bellows said in an interview.
Note by Roger Annis:
According to a chart accompanying this above article in the Globe and Mail, the amount of crude oil moved by rail annually in the U.S. during the past decade varied between 5 to 10 million barrels. It began to rise sharply in 2010. In 2012, app. 170 million barrels were moved. Seventy-one per cent of production in the huge, Bakken oil field (Williston Basin) in North Dakota is moved by rail.
According to CBC News, the number of rail cars of petroleum products moved in Canada is:
2010: 18,000 cars
2011: 83,500 cars
2012: 130,000 cars
- Five percent of all rail traffic in Canada involves crude oil shipments.
- Approximately 20 percentof Canada’s oil is exported on rail.
- Derailments may be falling in frequency, but there are still far too many of them — 588 in 2011 alone.
- March 27: About 114,000 litres of oil spilled near Parkers Prairie, Minnesota, when 14 cars derailed;
- April 3: A derailment of 22 cars west of White River, Ontario, caused the spill of 110,000 litres of light crude oil and 22,500 litres of canola oil. A broken train wheel and broken track were recovered from the scene;
- April 28: Seventeen cars carrying potash derailed near Provost, Alberta;
- May 21: A freight train jumped the tracks near Jansen, Saskatchewan., and spilled 91,000 litres of oil;
- June 2: A car derailed near Wanup, Ontario., struck a rail trestle and collapsed bridge into a stream;
- June 27: A bridge over Bow River in Calgary failed after a serious flood in the city, leaving six cars teetering over the water.
Overall, rail shipments of crude oil have sharply increased. In the past eight months, shipments of Western crude have jumped 150 percent from the previous year, to 150,000 barrels per day. The DOT-111 tanker cars most commonly used for transport are prone to leak their contents.
Tom Murphy, president of the CAW Local 101, which represents roughly 1,900 CP skilled trade workers, said he believes there is a direct correlation between the derailments and the reduction in CP’s headcount, including hundreds of his members who are tasked with conducting the safety inspections on the trains.
“The difference now is they have longer trains, less people to check them out, and a lot of the repairs, [and] the supervisor says, ‘We don’t need to fix that now. Let it go,’” Mr Murphy said in an interview Tuesday.
Meanwhile, rail officials are wringing their hands: “That’s what confuses us. How did this happen?” said Joseph R McGonigle, an executive at the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic. “There are many fail-safe modes. How this happened is just beyond us.”
Beyond everyone at this point, it seems. Not good enough. Not for the injured, not for the families of the dead and missing, and not for us.
Robyn Benson became National President of the Public Service Alliance of Canada on May 4th, 2012. Benson has been the Regional Executive Vice-President (REVP) for PSAC’s Prairies region since 2000. As the REVP, Benson has been responsible for a wide range of activities in her region which covers Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Benson worked for 20 years with the Winnipeg Taxation Centre of Revenue Canada (now the Canada Revenue Agency) before her election in 2000.
Appendix: Letter to CBC Radio in Vancouver
July 9, 2013
Hello CBC Almanac,
That was a disappointing story yesterday on the oil train disaster in Quebec. All of your guests shared an ideological attachment to the fossil fuel economy. How else to explain the support of your two invited mayors (Kamloops and Clearwater) to the Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline when their communities, not to speak of the Earth’s biosphere, have nothing to gain and everything to lose from it?
Your question to the mayors asking which dangerous train cargoes are running through their communities was most revealing. The mayor of Clearwater, a town located on the CP main line through British Columbia, said he “doesn’t know.”
The mayor of Kamloops, through which run both CP and CN main lines, dodged an answer, albeit noting that “all kinds of dangerous cargo” runs through his city on rail. He made a strong ideological pitch for dangerous rail cargo, saying several times that his city’s firefighting crews were ready and on guard if (when?) a rail disaster strikes.
The nurse who phoned into the program said that movement of fossil fuels and other dangerous chemicals by rail is a “fact of life” we must accept. No it isn’t. Similar myths have been pushed aside by progressive social development. Cholera, yellow fever and malaria used to be “facts of life” in large parts of North America. Poverty used to condemn many children to starvation or death for lack of medical care. Progressive society did something about that, including by confronting the wealthy minority who resisted.
Concerning the environment, ozone depletion caused by chemicals emissions, dumping of raw sewage, unregulated use of deadly chemicals industry, use of the deadly DDT pesticide–all this and much, much more used to be “facts of daily life” Not anymore (er, not altogether–Vancouver still dumps raw sewage in the Salish Sea).
The reality is that fossil fuels are a huge money-maker for a tiny minority of Canadian and U.S. societies. That minority uses a part of its wealth to lobby for and purchase consensus for a greedy, self-centered and destructive vision of society. This is the most basic “fact of life” under which we live in Canada.
CBC Almanac should be wary at times of disaster of presenting only one side of the deepening ideological and economic divide in our society over fossil fuel, climate, safety and other related issues.
A footnote–your host appears to have been in error when he insisted during the interview that the MMAR train company operates its trains with a minimum of two crew members. Today’s Globe and Mail Report on Business says trains of one crew are commonplace on that railway. I have seen no mention anywhere of any crew member of the doomed train at Lac Mégantic other than the engineer.