18 steps to rail inferno

Times Union | August 19, 2014 | Column by Brian Nearing

Canadian probe reveals no single cause of fiery oil tanker crash in Quebec, killing 47

Smoke rises from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac Megantic, Quebec, Canada, Saturday, July 6, 2013. The derailment sparked several explosions and forced the evacuation of up to 1,000 people. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson)


The fiery crash of an oil tanker train that killed 47 people in a small Quebec town last summer was the result of a cascade of different causes and failures ranging from the train engineer, the railroad and government regulators, according to a report issued Tuesday by the Canadian government.

The report examined the July 5 derailment of a runaway train carrying about 2 million gallons of North Dakota crude oil that exploded in a massive fire in Lac-Megantic, near the border with Maine. Sixty-two of 73 oil tankers derailed and ruptured, fueling a blaze that incinerated much of the community's downtown.

The disaster prompted a growing debate in the U.S. and Canada — and in the Capital Region, where hundreds of crude oil tankers are coming into the Port of Albany —over the skyrocketing use of trains to haul a surge of oil from the Bakken fields of North Dakota to coastal refineries.

"The tragedy in Lac-Megantic was not caused by one single person, action or organization," according to the report by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada that identified "18 distinct causes and contributing factors, many of them influencing one another."

Addressing oil train safety will "take a concerted effort from regulators, railways, shippers, tank car manufacturers, and refiners in Canada and the United States," the report concluded.

Asked about drawing lessons from the report, the state Department of Environmental Conservation issued a statement: "In January, Governor Cuomo issued an Executive Order directing state agencies to develop a comprehensive crude oil safety report that included ten recommendations for federal and state action, and proposed legislation to enact vital safety reforms. The findings in the Canadian report reinforce the governor's recommendations and New York will continue to push for safety measures to prevent potential incidents like the tragic accident in Lac-Megantic."

According to the Canadian report, a series of events that led to the Lac-Megantic crash were:

Inadequate money-saving repairs done eight months earlier to the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic locomotive that was hauling the crude oil-laden tanker cars, which led to an oil fire in the locomotive after the engineer left the train parked about seven miles east of Lac-Megantic.

The failure of the engineer to notice that air brakes powered by the locomotive were still on when he set an insufficient number of hand brakes and left for the night.

After the locomotive caught fire, local firefighters called to the scene turned off the locomotive's fuel and electrical systems, which cut off power to the air brakes. An MMA employee did not notice the situation, which caused the air brakes to gradually depressurize, which ultimately left the train secured only by an insufficient number of hand brakes. About 1 a.m., the train began rolling toward Lac-Megantic, reaching a speed of 65 mph before it derailed.

The report also cited the structural weakness and failure of older, non-reinforced DOT-111 tanker cars that are still in widespread use in the U.S. to haul Bakken crude. It also noted a failure by Canadian regulators to recognize that Bakken crude was more flammable that indicated on shipping documents.

Also, the report blamed a failure by regulators at Transport Canada to recognize the railroad — which went bankrupt after the crash — had a "weak safety culture" and lax safety training system for employees. A revamped training system instituted in 2010 was "still not functioning effectively" in 2013, the report found. Regional transportation officials in Quebec found repeated safety violations, often for the same problems, but this information was missed by headquarters officials who failed to monitor regional findings.

"Fossil fuels are inherently dangerous," said Sandy Steubing, a member of People of Albany United for Safe Energy, which is trying to halt crude oil rail shipments in the state. "There is always human error, always regulatory error, and always mechanical error (and) that is why we need to switch toward renewable energies, which don't carry the risk of such explosions and of the planet burning up from man-made climate change."

[email protected] • 518-454-5094 • @Bnearing10


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PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE is a grassroots group of individuals who have come together to promote safe, sustainable energy and fight for environmental justice. We engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry’s assault on the people of Albany and our environment.