Deadly train derailment in Quebec sparks debate over oil transport

As authorities search for answers, critics are arguing over whether railways or pipelines are safer.

Mathieu Belanger/Reuters
The remains of a burnt train are seen in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Monday, July 8. Two days after a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, people still have few answers as to what caused an accident that killed at least five people and destroyed a community.

Two days after a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, people still have few answers as to what caused an accident that killed at least five people and destroyed a community.

The intense flames from the 72-carload train have now been extinguished, though only after 30 buildings were incinerated. Forty people are still missing. But as survivors return home and authorities scour the debris for answers, Canadians are revisiting a debate that has pitted environmentalists against the oil industry: Do you transport black gold by pipeline or by railway?

Transporting oil by train has become more popular in recent years due to concerns over pipeline safety, reports the Toronto Star. In 2009, the Canadian Railway Association reported that 500 carloads of oil were transported through Canada by rail. This year, the estimate was 140,000 carloads.

Part of the reason for this massive increase is the fierce political opposition oil companies face from environmentalist groups over pipelines, which come with the risk of oil spills, according to the Globe and Mail. Projects such as the controversial Keystone XL pipeline proposal – which would run from Alberta to Texas – are a faster way to move oil, but the spills they may create are typically much larger than those posed by train derailment.

In the face of such criticism, numerous oil companies have switched to rail transport. But many are questioning that assumption in the aftermath of the Lac-Mégantic tragedy.  

Critics of rail transport point to problems of regulation over the transport of dangerous goods as part of the issue. According to the Montreal Gazette, strict regulations are in place to monitor the transport of hazardous materials by rail, including inspections of safety systems before and during every trip. However, the government has taken a backseat on enforcing the regulations, leaving most of the responsibility to the companies themselves.

That’s where the problems begin, according to [Avrom] Shtern [spokesman for the Montreal-based Green Coalition].

“I think the government, especially after austerity cuts, relies more and more on the industry to police itself. It’s unacceptable. You can’t just write rules and expect the (train companies) to police themselves.

“I think it’s high time the government came back into the game and reined them in. They’re not doing their job.”

In the case of the Lac-Mégantic accident, the engineer had parked the train uphill of the town late Friday night for a mandatory shift change and reported that at the time, the brakes had been engaged. Saturday morning, the train broke free and rolled downhill.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, upon visiting the small town, which is located 155 miles east of Montreal, described the scene as a “war zone,” reports the BBC. Two thousand residents were evacuated from their homes. Now there are concerns that the spilled oil has contaminated nearby waterways, which are used by many of the surrounding communities for their drinking water, according to Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC).

Montreal, Main, & Atlantic Railway, the company operating the train, has not yet been able to investigate what happened, although it has released a statement speculating that a brake malfunction took place.

This is not the first accident involving oil transport by rail this year, according to CTV. In May, a train derailed near the town of Jansen in rural Saskatchewan, spilling 91,000 liters of oil. In June, 13,000 liters of diesel were spilled in Frontenac, another town in Quebec not far from Lac-Mégantic.

But others fear that this incident will be used as fodder in favor of using pipelines, which come at high risk as well, according to The New York Times.

Accidents involving pipelines, [said Edward Whittingham, executive director of Calgary-based environmental group the Pembina Institute], can be more difficult to detect and can release greater amounts of oil. Rail accidents are more frequent but generally release less oil. The intensity of the explosions and fires at Lac-Mégantic, he said, came as a “big surprise” to him and other researchers, given that the tank cars had been carrying crude oil, rather than a more volatile form like gasoline.

For others still, the debate over transportation is moot given the inherent risks of oil dependency.

“Whether we transport by rail or pipeline,” says Peter Brown, a professor of geography at McGill University in Montreal, “we need to get away from an oil economy, which the Harper government is completely oblivious to.”

“It will probably be pitched by Harper in favor of pipelines, but it should be pitched in favor of better regulations,” says Prof. Brown. 

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