Maine environmental officials are monitoring the runaway train derailment in eastern Quebec but do not expect the oil spill and fires to affect the state's air or water.
The 73-car derailment Saturday caused multiple explosions in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, about 10 miles west of Maine. About 30 buildings were destroyed after tanker cars laden with oil caught fire, and several cars continued to burn Sunday. The death toll reached five and was expected to rise.
Maine officials were notified about concerns about the smoke from the fire but staff meteorologists don't believe it will have a significant impact, Peter Blanchard of the state Department of Environmental Protection said Sunday. And while oil spilled in the Chaudiere River, it flows north and thus would not impact Maine waters, he said.
Blanchard said his office is in touch with the Maine Emergency Management Agency, railroad officials and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to coordinate any assistance that may be necessary.
"As expected, initial efforts have been focused on extinguishing the fire and investigating missing persons," said Blanchard, director of response services at the agency. "Our thoughts go out to the citizens of Lac-Megantic."
Trains carried nearly 5.3 million barrels of light crude oil across Maine last year, primarily moving oil from North Dakota to a Canadian refinery, and the volume is growing. The increased activity is part of a national trend: As U.S. oil production has increase in areas with limited pipeline capacity, so, too, has transport of oil by rail.
Concerned about the increase, Maine has begun developing protection plans for the areas where the trains travel. Staff members in Blanchard's division have ridden in Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway Ltd. cars from the Canadian border to Greenville, identified areas that would allow access for staging equipment and are using mapping software to identify sensitive natural resources, water bodies and drinking water sources near rail lines.
"It is a work in progress," Blanchard said. "Our state is large geographically and heavily forested. We continue to prepare and train with our public and private partners."
In March, a Pan Am Railways oil train derailed about 100 yards from the Penobscot River in Mattawamkeag, but only a tiny amount of oil — measured in drips — spilled. But it was enough to raise concerns among environmentalists.
The Quebec derailment is reason enough to call for an immediate moratorium on the rail transport of oil through Maine, said Glen Brand, director of the Sierra Club's Maine chapter.
"This tragic accident is part of the larger problem of moving oil through Maine and northern New England," he said. "It reinforces the importance of moving away from dirty fossil fuels that expose the people of northern New England, Maine and Quebec to a host of dangerous risks."