Train Derailment Causes Massive Crude Oil Explosion and Fires
Early Saturday morning, July 6, 2013, a train carrying hundreds of tons of crude oil from North Dakota to St. John’s, New Brunswick, derailed in the village of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, resulting in explosions and fires that continued 24 hours later (Montreal Gazette, QMI Agency, Wall Street Journal, Toronto Star, NBC News). Five deaths have been confirmed, another 40 people remain missing, 2,000 people have been evacuated from their homes, and at least 30 buildings have been destroyed in the village’s downtown core. About 150 firefighters were at the scene July 6.
Police report at least 50 of the train’s 73 crude oil tank cars caught fire. Burning crude oil spilled into storm sewers and shot up through street manholes, setting buildings on fire. Explosions ruptured a water main, forcing the village to bring in tankers for drinking water. Crude oil has spilled into the town’s namesake lake and a nearby river, causing undisclosed environmental damage.
Media report that the scale of the explosion and evacuation already would rank the accident as one of the most dramatic rail accidents in North America in recent years.
The train, operated by Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway Inc., was parked outside the village just before midnight July 5, started moving again with no crew on board, and traveled uncontrolled for about 7 miles before derailing in Lac-Megantic.
The Lac-Megantic disaster, along with a recent string of railroad accidents involving crude oil, is raising serious questions about the overall safety of the rail industry in North America. NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, blamed the federal Conservatives for the tragedy. He said, “The significant increase in the transportation of dangerous products by trains was not followed by increase in inspections and regulations, but instead was followed by cuts for inspections, by the Conservatives.”
Transportation safety experts, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB), the US National Transportation Safety Board, local governments, concerned residents living near railways, environmental groups, and Canadian federal opposition parties have raised the red flag many times, pointing out the abysmal safety record of the rail industry…but little seems to change. The federal government in Canada leaves it up to the rail industry to respond to safety improvement recommendations by the TSB. In many cases, the TSB’s recommendations, following investigations of a multitude of derailments and other rail accidents, are ignored by the powerful rail industry.
The Canada Safety Council indicates there were 588 train derailments in Canada in 2011 (many are not reported), and that about 20% of Canada’s oil is transported by rail. CN says that dangerous goods account for about 10% of its traffic volume, while others indicate that statistic is even higher.
Railroaded has written many times about the dangers of shipping oil and other dangerous products by rail. Unfortunately, this latest incident is one more example. Also see this link for many more examples of derailments in Canada and the United States.