Death Toll from Crude Oil Derailment and Explosion Climbs to 38
The total number of deaths resulting from the derailment and explosion of dozens of crude oil tank cars in Lac-Megantic, Quebec has risen to 38. Only 12 of these people have been positively identified due to the burned state of the bodies caused by the intense heat of the crude oil fires. The remaining 12 of the 50 people who were reported missing following the July 6 explosions and fires are feared to also be dead. Searches for remaining bodies continue while about 60 overturned and burned rail tank cars remain on the site of the tragedy, pending investigation by the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) of Canada. (Edmonton Journal 1, Reuters, Canadian Press 1, Bangor Daily News, National Geographic, Canadian Press 2, Edmonton Journal 2, Edmonton Journal 3, Ottawa Citizen, Edmonton Journal 4, Montreal Gazette, Globe and Mail)
Wendy Tadros, TSB Chair, says, “This may well be the most devastating rail accident in Canadian history… This will be an incredibly complex investigation… It will take months — or more.”
Parts of the disaster scene are still too dangerous for police to work. Toxic fumes from the train’s crude oil cargo have forced police to move around during the investigation. A crew of 12 workers is draining the crude oil that remains in the overturned tank cars, and is also trying to decontaminate the oil-soaked soil from downtown Lac-Megantic which has made the air hazardous.
About 50 police officers have been sifting through the wreckage for human remains. As of July 13 and 14, a week following the inferno, 10% of the 2,000 people who were evacuated, were still not allowed to return to their homes.
The municipality of Lac-Megantic and its residents are worried about the impact of the spill on the town’s water supply. A layer of oil and sludge shimmers on the surface of the lake and the Chaudiere River.
The debate about rail safety, in the wake of the Lac-Megantic derailment, is just beginning. A few of the major rail safety issues raised so far include: improper use of handbrakes to make parked trains safer, the use of only one engineer per train by some rail companies, the continuing use of weak and unsafe rail tank cars, insufficient rail safety oversight by Transport Canada, no planning for rapidly increasing shipping of oil by rail, rail companies running too-long and too-heavy trains that the current track infrastructure cannot support, rail companies ignoring recommendations by the TSB for improved rail safety, overall deterioration of rail infrastructure across Canada, and refusal of rail companies to inform municipalities and the public what hazardous and dangerous goods are being transported through towns and cities – and how much.
Municipalities across the country are demanding that rail companies release details about the hazardous products they are hauling, and prove their infrastructure is safe. Local governments are concerned for the safety of the hundreds of thousands of residents and businesses that are located near railways. Unlike other private businesses, rail companies are exempt from municipal regulations. Railways are currently responsible for their own inspections and are not obliged to inform municipalities what they are hauling.
Perhaps one of the most consistent complaints made following the July 6 derailment is the weak rail safety oversight by the federal government, specifically Transport Canada – the regulator. Grant Bishop, who holds degrees in geological engineering, economics and law, recently wrote in the Globe and Mail, “…there is no excuse for regulatory paralysis in the face of a clear and present danger. The government should explain to Canadians what steps it has taken to regulate the risks on Canada’s rails.”
The Lac-Megantic disaster has also raised concerns about rail safety in the USA. Maine US Representatives called last week for a federal investigation into the safety of the infrastructure used to transport crude oil and gas by rail through Maine.
Is there any light at the end of the tunnel, when it comes to improving rail safety in Canada? It is possible that this most recent crude oil derailment will force the federal government to implement more of the TSB’s many past recommendations to improve rail safety, such as developing tougher regulations for the use of rail car hand brakes, construction of safe tank cars, train crew size, and more. A TSB investigator recently said, “I am confident that this will be an investigation that changes the industry.”
Let’s hope this TSB investigator is correct so that the hundreds of thousands of people who live next to railways will be able to sleep at night. Perhaps some of the lawsuits that are being initiated by those who lost family members and suffered economic losses in Lac-Megantic will also pressure the rail industry to create a better balance between company profits and human safety.