What caused a parked train to break loose and roll with destructive force into the border town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, on July 6? The answer to that question remains a mystery today as firefighters douse remaining flames and sift through the wreckage of the town center, an area so charred a local fire chief likened it to a “war zone.”
The 73-car train belonged to the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, which owns track from Quebec to the coast of Maine and the Canadian province of New Brunswick, and was loaded with crude oil. It had been parked west of town, uphill, and its engineer had detrained to spend the night in a town hotel.
Edward Burkhardt, the chief executive officer of the parent firm of the MM&A Railway told The Associated Press that his information indicates the train was parked in an appropriate manner.
“If brakes aren’t properly applied on a train, it’s going to run away,” said Mr. Burkhardt. “But we think the brakes were properly applied on this train.”
The engineer has said he set the brakes on all five of the train’s engines, as well as on a sufficient number of cars, said Burkhardt.
The train rolled into the center of Lac-Megantic at about 1 a.m. The area was still busy with people in bars and restaurants in a town that bustles with visitors in summer. It derailed and an undetermined number of tanker cars were damaged. They fired a series of explosions that leveled buildings and loosed a stream of burning oil into sewers.
As of Sunday morning local authorities said they had one confirmed fatality, but that the number was likely to rise. There were few reports of injuries, suggesting that people either escaped or were killed by the sudden blasts and fire.
Across the border in Maine, the tragedy is likely to turn up the volume on an existing debate about the safety of shipping crude oil through the state from Canada’s western petroleum region to New Brunswick’s coastal refineries.
The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would move much of this heavy oil from Canada south through the United States to Texas. Its backers say this means of transportation is safer than freight transport. But it has been blocked, for now, by environmental concerns.
That means railroads continue to carry the bulk of this oil cargo. But Maine environmentalists aren’t happy about this, either. On June 27 six members of the protest group “350 Maine” were arrested in the south-central town of Fairfield for blocking railroad tracks with signs calling to “Stop Fracked Oil.”
Oil trains have been crossing Maine since May 2012, according to the Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram. Some have been involved in accidents that barely avoided environmental catastrophe.
Last March, one oil train derailed within 300 feet of the Penobscot River in Mattawamkeag. Little petroleum leaked, but if it had, it would have reached a river that is one of the state’s major waterways, leading to a bay that accounts for a large section of coastline and rich lobster trapping grounds.
The Lac-Megantic tragedy confirms their worst fears, said Maine environmentalists. The destroyed train would likely have entered Maine around the town of Jackman, and traveled to Brownsville in the middle of the state. There it would have been picked up by a locomotive from a New Brunswick railroad and hauled northeast to the Canadian coast.
“It’s devastating,” Meaghan LaSala of 350 Maine told the Sunday Telegram. “It’s also exactly what we were afraid could happen in Maine, or any community along the routes where crude is headed all across the country.”
A spokesman for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection said they have now begun developing protection plans for areas where oil trains travel, according to the AP.