Unsafe at any speed? | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Unsafe at any speed?

As Lac-Mégantic searches for a way forward, more troubling questions emerge about moving oil by rail

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on July 29, 2013

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.”

Maclean's July 29, 2013