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Is oil too dangerous to ship by rail?

In the wake of the Lac-Megantic oil train disaster, it's important to focus on how to improve rail safety, Styles writes, and not use the tragedy to advance social causes. 

By Geoffrey StylesGuest blogger / August 14, 2013

Firefighters water railway cars the day after a train derailed causing explosions of railway cars carrying crude oil in Lac Megantic, Quebec, Canada.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press/AP/File

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Two Conversations about A Tragedy

It’s been just over a month since a train loaded with crude oil from North Dakota derailed and exploded in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing an estimated 47 residents. In the interval since the accident, the relevant authorities have focused on ascertaining the cause of the accident and determining how best to improve rail safety. However, there has also been another, less-customary conversation about whether oil in general, and the specific oil on this train, might be too dangerous to transport by rail at all. That conversation would benefit from some context that appears to be absent.

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Both conversations began with a tragedy in a place I recognized immediately. Ten years ago my wife and I passed through Lac-Megantic and drove along the Chaudière river that originates there, on its way to the St. Lawrence. It’s an area of natural beauty and historical significance. The images of destruction and of oil spilled in the river were gut-wrenching.

The investigation is still underway, but it seems significant that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) of the US Deparment of Transportation has already issued an Emergency Order banning the practice of leaving such trains unattended, pending the development of better procedures for securing them safely.Canadian authorities are reviewing their regulations and enforcement, as well as revisiting questions about the specific type of tank car in which the oil was carried. The Wall St. Journal reported that the FRA is also  looking into the testing and classification of crude oil shipments, to ensure that the tank cars used to transport different crude oils are suited to the task. Meanwhile, the rail operator involved in the accident hasfiled for bankruptcy on both sides of the border. 

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