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Lessons From Quebec Disaster About Hazardous Cargo Transit In New England

Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac Megantic, Quebec, Canada, Saturday, July 6, 2013. A large swath of Lac Megantic was destroyed Saturday after a train carrying crude oil derailed, sparking several explosions and forcing the evacuation of up to 1,000 people. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson)

Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac Megantic, Quebec, Canada, Saturday, July 6, 2013. A large swath of Lac Megantic was destroyed Saturday after a train carrying crude oil derailed, sparking several explosions and forcing the evacuation of up to 1,000 people. (Paul Chiasson/AP)

The catastrophic explosion of a freight train last weekend in Quebec has raised fresh questions — here in New England and across the nation — about the safety of rail lines and the transportation of oil and other hazardous cargo.

As many as 50 people are dead or still missing five days after a runaway train loaded with crude oil jumped the tracks and exploded in a series of enormous fireballs, devastating the center of the village of Lac Megantic, Quebec, just north of the Maine border.

The tragedy has drawn attention to the growing reliance on trains to haul increasing amounts of oil across New England and the nation. According to the American Association of Railroads, just five years ago, trains hauled about 10-thousand carloads of crude. Last year, they hauled almost 25 times that amount. So the questions is, are rail lines safe to carry such a load? Was the Lac Megantic tragedy an aberration or a warning?

Guests

Daniel Bitonti, reporter for The Globe and Mail

Kate Colarulli, deputy director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Oil Campaign

Christopher Parker, executive director of the Vermont Rail Action Network


Other stories from this show:

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  • Alix Kepner

    The two guests seemed to cover the two extreme ends of the issue without offering any suggestions for near-term safety improvements. I disagree vehemently with Mr. Parker’s claims that current regulation of fuel transport by rail is perfectly adequate–it most certainly is not, and how anyone could make such a statement after witnessing the horrific accident in Lac-Mégantic, Québec is beyond belief. Inadequate railroad engineering staff, leaving a 73-car unit train full of crude oil on a main track (not parked on siding), using DOT-111 tanker cars long-known for their vulnerability to punctures in the event of an accident–all of these factors add up to inadequate regulatory and corporate oversight.

    As far as Ms. Colarulli’s points are concerned, reducing our dependence on oil is a worthy long-term goal, but it does absolutely nothing to address the immediate safety concerns of communities through which greater and greater volumes of volatile cargo pass via rail.

    Alix Kepner (Cambridge, MA)

    • Alix Kepner

      p.s. My concerns around this issue pre-date the Lac-Mégantic accident. Global Petroleum, a Massachusetts-based fuel company, recently withdrew their proposal to run 60-100-car-long unit-trains carrying ethanol to their blending facility in Revere using MBTA commuter-rail tracks. Their proposal would have had these trains running 2-3 times a week on the Fitchburg, Worcester, Lowell & Haverhill lines, meeting at the Boston Engine Terminal, and continuing on the Newbury/Rockport line to Revere.

      The company withdrew their proposal in the face of a legislative amendment put forward by State Senators Sal DiDomenico, Anthony Petrucelli & Pat Jehlen. The amendment would prohibit the Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) from issuing a Chapter 91 waterways License to an ethanol blending facility that stores or blends more than an average of 5,000 gallons of ethanol per day within 1 mile of any community with more than 4,000 people per square mile.

      This amendment is now on Governor Patrick’s desk, awaiting his signature. Because the railroads retained the freight rights when they sold the tracks to the MBTA, and rail transport is regulated at the Federal level, these companies have the legal right to ship whatever cargo they’d like on these rails. This amendment offers a unique opportunity to keep ethanol trains off the tracks in the densely-populated communities of the greater Boston area. If it’s not signed into law, you can bet that future fuel-transport proposals will be put forward and we will experience the “virtual pipeline” first-hand.

      • Peg Blum

         The thought of these trains loaded with ethanol passing by my home which is 15 feet away from these tracks on the Fitchburg line going through a densely-populated area in Cambridge 2-3 times a week in the middle of the night is SCARY, especially since it is very difficult to extinguish the ethanol fire which might result from any leaks.  Evacuation of the vulnerable population would be needed.  How would that effect our property values as well as our peaceful use of our homes?

        • Ellin Reisner

           Peg and Alix raise important concerns because we live in such a densely populated area.  If there were a derailment and fire there would be a need to evacuate people within a 1/2 mile of the tracks.  That would be a nightmare in itself since there are schools, assisted living centers, hospitals as well as residences.  While we are aware of this threat in the inner core communities, people living along all of the towns and cities along the Fitchburg, Lowell and Haverhill lines would also be vulnerable.  It is critical that Governor Patrick support the Chapter 91 Amendment that Senators DiDomenico, Jehlen and Petrucelli sponsored and was passed by the House and Senate.

  • Brad Bellows (Cambridge MA)

     Kudos to WBUR for pointing out the radical expansion that is occurring in the transport of explosive cargoes on our often antiquated freight railroads. The inferno in Lac Megantic is not just a horrific tragedy, and a case study in lax safety procedures, but also a metaphor for the obsolete regulatory process itself, which is essentially a driverless “ghost train” drifting silently toward far greater calamities.

    While rail shipments do, as your guest pointed out, have a statistically lower incidence of spills than pipelines or trucks do, they differ in several key respects, combining the most dangerous elements of both: vast quantities of explosive material (up to 3 million gallons per shipment), moving through some of the country’s densest urban areas, on antiquated and often poorly maintained and unsecured rail lines, with minimal oversight, and lax regulation biased toward shippers’ convenience at the expense of public safety. To better understand the hazard, one need only Google the word “BLEVE”.

    Here in Boston, it should not have taken 18 months of grassroots organizing to point out the folly of sending nightly bomb trains through dense and combustible urban neighborhoods, the Kendall Square research complex, and within 50′ of an operating nuclear reactor, thereby putting tens of thousands of people and billions of dollars in property at risk for the convenience of one shipper. That this was permissible in the first place speaks volumes about what is wrong with the federal regulatory process.

    Any thoughtful discussion of rail safety requires us to hold two contradictory ideas in mind at the same time: that rail is a wonderful means of distributing goods and services, and cannot be subject to whimsical local regulation, and that certain combinations of cargo and route are too inherently hazardous to be allowed to coexist. One does not routinely carry explosives into a crowded theater and then call it an accident when they are inadvertently set off, but this is how we currently handle rail shipments, making, as your guest pointed out, no distinction whatsoever between lumber and explosive cargo, or between rural routes where the consequences of an accident might be manageable, and urban routes where they are not.

    Lac Megantic is a wake-up call to reform the regulation of our freight railroads. A recent Harvard study pointed out that one of the most important first steps  will be to require shippers to bear more of the risk their shipments create, rather than allowing them to “externalize” it as they now do.  There are also many safety measures long recommended by the National Safety Transportation Board that have yet to be fully implemented, in deference to industry concerns about compliance cost. The energy supply chain also needs more holistic analysis so transfer facilities are located so as to minimize the risks to  population centers. These steps need to taken at the federal level, but will not unless local communities demand it.

  • PGarrity

    I applaud WBUR for covering this topic at this time.  Without a doubt the issue of rail safety is an issue that deserves more attention than it has received up to now.  This is a national issue, but it is at the local level that we, the individual citizens, become aware of the problems.  Since becoming concerned with the proposal to ship ethanol by rail through the crowded neighborhoods of Boston and the surrounding areas, I have become familiar with the national problems we have regarding rail transport safety.  One of the guests on this program seemed to indicate that rail accidents were rare and that transport of hazardous materials deserved no more attention than a load of lumber.  I beg to differ.  The number of rail accidents has increased exponentially in recent years, and more and more of them involve some kind of hazardous material.  Communities all around the country have been put at risk and many have suffered serious destruction of late.  I have learned that the federal oversight of the rail lines is piecemeal at best, and no one is overseeing the big picture.  Regulations are suggested, but not required.  For example, there are safer tanker cars that do not rupture  easily, but the companies have been allowed to delay using them because of cost.  It is questionable if the rail lines across the country are up to handling the increased traffic of hazardous materials.  Furthermore, companies are allowed to have as few as one or two people running a train of 60 to 100 cars; and to leave trains idling, unattended for extended periods, while waiting for the next shift to appear.  Nor is any thought being given to the cost to local communities that will be expected to  prepare for the eventuality of a rail accident occurring sometime in the near future.  It appears that profit over public safety is the watch word of the day.  We need to see the horrific accident in Quebec as a warning and learn from it.  It is time for our government at the federal and state level to pay attention to the issues that are being raised.  We need to update the oversight and regulations that cover the transport of hazardous materials, so that we are dealing with conditions of the 21st century, not those of the 19th and 20th centuries.  We also need to put more thought into developing alternative sources of energy that are affordable and accessible to the average citizen.  It seems that that has been pushed into the background once again.

  • Eastiegails

    Sadly, alot of industries in our country have carte blanche about how they are allowed to run their businesses….take for example the power plants…still not up to date with clean scrubbers and the like….because all of these industries have lobbyists, I am afraid the battles will continue piecemeal.   

  • MGarrity

    I am in complete agreement with the comments below.  There needs to be a real discussion that
    includes the communities that are affected. 
    Since learning of the proposal in Massachusetts to transport ethanol by
    train through very densely populated cities, I have been quite surprised at the
    difficulty that we residents have had in getting any response to questions and
    concerns that we residents have raised regarding our safety and the
    environment. 

     

    The horrific accident last weekend in Quebec clearly
    demonstrates that it is time for real and responsible practices on the part of
    businesses and clear and enforced regulation and oversight on the part of
    government.  We can no longer allow the
    practice of quasi federal/self regulated rails and pipelines to exist.  It is too dangerous. 

     

    It is very wrong that we have more laws for oversight
    and enforcement of a barbecue grill than we have for a train of 60 to 100 cars carrying
    ethanol through densely populated cities. 
    There is also something very wrong when citizens are not being informed
    and heard! 

    It is not just a federal issue, it is also a local issue!  The laws need to be updated to reflect this fact.

    Chelsea, MA

  • Sharon Hamer

    As I understand it, much of the national rail policy was implemented during the 19th century when rail barons ruled the roost. It is surely time we updated those corporate-friendly policies now that we have consumer and environmental agencies “watching out” for our interests.  Massachusetts is at deadly risk if the ethanol trains that Global Partners wants to run ever comes to fruition. My understanding is that the rail corporations have NO liability if there is an accident, no responsibility to upgrade tracks (an expense left to the state and local communities), and no responsibility to contribute to the disaster preparedness of the local cities and towns they want to ship their fuel bombs through.

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