Update on Lac-Megantic Crude Oil Derailment, Spill, Explosion and Fires
A total of 42 people are reported to have been killed by the derailment and crude oil explosions and fires in Lac-Megantic, Quebec on July 6, 2013, with another 5 missing who are presumed dead. The accident is considered one of the deadliest rail disasters in Canadian history.
At least 6.5 million litres of crude oil have spilled into the surface water, soil and groundwater in and near Lac-Megantic. Rail safety experts and government personnel are citing the spill as one of the largest environmental disasters in North American history.
In an unusual move, Transport Canada positively responded on July 23 to numerous recent Transportation Safety Board (TSB) recommendations following the Lac-Megantic disaster by issuing 6 new emergency train safety rules: no fewer than 2 qualified persons must operate a locomotive hauling at least 1 tank car loaded with hazardous materials, no locomotive hauling 1 or more loaded hazardous material tank cars can be left unattended, all unattended locomotives must be protected from unauthorized entry, directional controls must be removed from any unattended locomotives, hand brakes must be applied to any locomotive attached to 1 or more cars that are left unattended for more than 1 hour, and the automatic brake must be set in full-service position and the independent brake fully applied on any locomotive hauling 1 or more cars that are left unattended for 1 hour or less. These emergency rules are effective immediately and will be in place for about 6 months, apparently leading to permanent rule changes, according to Transport Canada.
While announcing these changes, senior officials of Transport Canada refused to answer questions about why the department had repeatedly failed in previous years to respond to rail safety weaknesses highlighted in internal and external audits. David Jeanes, President of Transport Action Canada, said, “If all 6 of these directives had been in place and had been observed by the MMA Railway then it’s very unlikely that the Lac-Megantic accident would have happened.”
Many safety experts are calling Transport Canada’s latest rules, “too little too late”.
Canada’s mayors have called on the federal government to make rail transportation safer and to include municipal leaders in future rail safety discussions. Mayors certainly have the right to make this request, considering it is their firemen and their first responders who must deal with rail accidents within their municipalities. And, municipalities have a legal obligation to protect the health and safety of their citizens.
Mark Winfield, an associate professor of environmental studies at York University, recently wrote, “Students of major disasters often talk of the concept of ‘disaster incubation’ – a period of cumulating failures on the part of operators and regulators that eventually overwhelm even multilayered safety systems and lead to tragic outcomes. No better term could be used to describe the emerging series of failures on the part of railway operators and their safety regulator, Transport Canada, that led to the Lac-Megantic disaster.” Winfield pointed out the repeated failure of the rail industry and Transport Canada to address serious safety recommendations made by the TSB following almost every investigation of a rail accident. Transport Canada had also ignored a succession of warnings from the Auditor-General of Canada, railway unions and safety advocates about declining safety standards and practices in the rail industry. Winfield continued, “The significance of these failures was particularly acute as North American railway operators engaged in cutthroat competition to cut costs and increase profits by any means possible, reducing staffing levels and safety margins in the process. This combination of circumstances made some form of major rail accident in Canada virtually inevitable. Lac-Megantic simply had the misfortune to be where disaster struck first, and in a way and location that caused the loss of 47 innocent lives.”
“In effect, federal inspectors are reviewing plans and paperwork from their desks in Ottawa, not actual equipment, operations and practices in the field. The approach has the advantage, from the perspective of a federal government focused on austerity, of being cheaper, as it requires fewer inspectors. From the perspective of operators, it reduces day-to-day regulatory ‘interference’ and government ‘red tape’,” wrote Winfield. “…a fuller judicial inquiry is needed to ensure that the causes of the disaster are fully understood, and that measures needed to protect the safety of Canadians are taken throughout the federal government. In the meantime, Canadian governments need to recognize that regulating on the cheap or in ways that put the economic interests of the regulated firms ahead of the safety interests of the public, are recipes for further disaster.”
The federal NDP has been pressing for the Commons Transport Committee to respond urgently to the Lac-Megantic disaster. NDP Transport Critic, Olivia Chow, wants the committee to hold summer hearings to investigate the “massive deficiencies” in Transport Canada’s efforts to protect Canadians from the major risks of trains carrying dangerous goods. Unfortunately, the Conservatives and Liberals on the Transport Committee voted to put off a study of rail safety, leaving the matter for now to the TSB’s investigation.
The U.S. rail industry and the oil industry are fighting the Obama administration’s attempt to increase safety standards for the type of rail tank car involved in the Lac-Megantic disaster. Canadian rail companies and oil companies have also refused to make these cars safer, citing high costs required to retrofit. The DOT-111 tank car has been criticized widely by safety experts for its tendency to split open during derailments and other accidents. The tank car’s design makes it prone to damage and catastrophic loss of hazardous materials. Defects in the tank car’s integrity have been noted as far back as 1991. It is most unfortunate, and in a sense unbelievable, that the powerful rail industry’s consistent refusal to retrofit these time bombs to meet current safety standards has outweighed the safety of the public.
Perhaps what the rail industry and rail safety regulators have been unwilling to do will be forced upon them by lawsuits that are currently being launched by those who have suffered family deaths, injuries and financial losses due to the derailment and spill in Lac-Megantic. Lawyers and Lac-Megantic residents are speculating there will be a multitude of million-dollar lawsuits…and…rightfully so, considering ample warnings to the rail industry and Transport Canada of safety breaches.
This blog is based, in part, on information from the following sources: Canada.com, Ottawa Citizen, Postmedia News 1, Postmedia News 2, Associated Press, Progressive Railroading, Journal Star, CBC News, Toronto Star, and Canadian Press.