Category Archives: Crude By Rail

NY Times: A Runaway Train Explosion Killed 47, but Deadly Cargo Still Rides the Rails

By Ian Austen, July 16, 2019
Three days after the disaster, workers were still combing through debris.
Three days after the disaster, workers were still combing through debris. Credit Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press, via Associated Press

When things go wrong, those in power often promise to make it right. But do they? In this series, The Times is going back to the scene of major news events to see if those promises were kept.

The runaway train hurtled into the center of town shortly after midnight, with no one aboard to apply the brakes or sound a whistle to warn residents about the deadly cargo bearing down on them.

When it reached a tight curve, the freight train, going 65 miles an hour, derailed. Amid a deafening, horrific screech of rupturing metal, more than a million gallons of fuel spilled and exploded.

The blast incinerated most of downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. In a community of just 5,600, 47 people were killed.

The scale of the disaster on July 6, 2013, not only shocked and outraged Canada, it also raised alarm in towns and cities across the country, where a growing number of trains, laden with oil, explosives and toxic chemicals, were rolling through urban centers day and night.

Canada’s government, and the railway industry, vowed to quickly address people’s fear.

“This is an unbelievable disaster that has occurred here,” Stephen Harper, the Conservative prime minister at the time, said after inspecting the destruction. “They’ll be investigations to ascertain what has occurred to make sure that it can’t happen again.”

And there have been changes — at least on paper.

Railways are now required to look for alternative routes to keep shipments of dangerous goods out of urban areas, but trains filled with risky cargo still rumble day and night through Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal, Toronto and other cities.

Not much has changed since that night in Lac-Mégantic, either. Six years after the catastrophe, the core of the town remains a wasteland, with much of the once-vibrant downtown a weed lot.

The emotional scars have been slow to heal, too.

“People are still afraid,” said Jamie Stearns, who owns a local landscaping business. “Personally, when I hear the whistle of the train, it comes right back — the shivers.”

Railway tracks leading toward the crash site in Lac-Mégantic.
Railway tracks leading toward the crash site in Lac-Mégantic. Credit Ian Willms for The New York Times
WHAT WE FOUND

Setting the Stage for Disaster: Deregulation

The Lac-Mégantic derailment came at a time of surging oil and gas production in Canada. It also followed a trend of deregulation that had turned over much in the way of safety oversight to the railways themselves.

In its report after the accident, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board portrayed the company responsible, the now-defunct Montreal, Maine and Atlantic, as a threadbare operation at which saving time and cutting costs trumped safety.

But the railway’s use of a skeleton crew, vulnerable tanker cars and routes going straight through population centers were all allowed under the country’s regulations.

“Lac-Mégantic was the violent consequence of a series of policy decisions interacting — whether they were deregulation or privatization or austerity — and the consequence was that there was a steady erosion of safety,” said Bruce Campbell, who prepared several studies on the accident as executive director of the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives, a research group in Ottawa.

After the accident, Canada’s government did reverse that deregulation trend, increasing its oversight of railways, adding inspectors and introducing new safety rules. And for the first time, railways now must be licensed by Transport Canada to operate. If the regulator finds serious safety violations, it can immediately revoke that permit.

But the efficacy of some of these changes remains an open question. And one of the most important new rules comes with a loophole enormous enough for train after train to barrel right through.

After the crash, an impromptu shrine went up at a local church.
After the crash, an impromptu shrine went up at a local church. Credit Ian Willms for The New York Times
WHAT WE FOUND

Avoid Urban Centers? Easier Said Than Done.

In 2016, the government ordered all railways to start examining the routes they were using to ship dangerous cargos. They were told to see if they could identify alternative runs using remote rail lines instead of ones threading through urban areas.

In theory, this regulation could help reduce the chances of a deadly accident in a populated area. In practice, however, little has changed on the ground — or, more accurately, in the centers of Canada’s most populous cities.

Locomotives pulling tanker cars heavy with oil, propane and noxious chemicals continue to be a common sight in the hearts of several major Canadian cities. Look up at any time in downtown Winnipeg, and you’re likely to see tanker cars passing by on the city’s busy elevated tracks.

Transport Canada, the department responsible for making and enforcing rail regulations, said the railways did not give it reports on how many dangerous-goods trains, if any, they’ve moved away from cities following their obligatory safety reviews.

Canadian Pacific and Canadian National, the two major railways that haul the overwhelming majority of Canada’s rail traffic, referred questions about dangerous cargo in cities to the Railway Association of Canada, their lobbying group. In an email, the association declined to provide any statistics about reroutings,citing “security purposes.”

Ian Naish, the former director of rail accident investigations at the safety board, who is now a safety consultant, said the number of dangerous goods that have been redirected “is probably zero.”

The closing of some rail lines in remote areas to increase efficiency, combined with the fact that many Canadian communities were built around railway tracks, means “there really aren’t any alternatives,” Mr. Naish said.

The Federal Railroad Administration requires similar reviews of routes with dangerous cargos in the United States. But in a statement, it suggested that dangerous cargo is rarely rerouted because “alternatives may increase overall transit time, require additional handling, or introduce other operational risks.”

Louis-Serges Parent and his ex-wife, Thérèse Lachance, at the site where their home once stood. It was destroyed in the disaster.
Louis-Serges Parent and his ex-wife, Thérèse Lachance, at the site where their home once stood. It was destroyed in the disaster. Credit Ian Willms for The New York Times
WHAT WE FOUND

Improved Technology, but Unproven

The government’s most notable change after Lac-Mégantic: All tanker cars of the type that crumpled in the derailment have stopped carrying anything that is toxic or can explode or burn.

The cars that ruptured were an old design, called DOT-111, with limited crash resistance.

Lisa Raitt, who became the transport minister in the Conservative government nine days after the crash, announced that this design would be gradually phased out, and that by 2025, these tankers would no longer be carrying flammable products.

Her successor, Marc Garneau, who took office in 2015 in Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government, twice sped up that schedule, and in January of this year, the goal was met.

Taking the place of many of the old tankers is a new design, with substantial reinforcement and other safety improvements, called DOT-117. But limitations in crash testing mean that while the new cars promise much on paper, their effectiveness in a real-world disaster remains to be seen.

“We won’t know for sure until we see how they perform in actual accidents,” said Ms. Fox, of the safety board. “I know that’s not very reassuring.”

A tanker car from the wreck left in Lac-Mégantic.
A tanker car from the wreck left in Lac-Mégantic. Credit Ian Willms for The New York Times
WHAT WE FOUND

To Control a Train, 2 Is Better Than 1

Another critical policy change was an order given just weeks after the disaster obligating all trains in Canada to once again carry at least two crew members. That only one worker was operating the Lac-Mégantic train was a major factor in the catastrophe.

In the United States, the Federal Railroad Administration recently abandoned a proposed regulation that would have required at least two-person crews on most trains.

Thomas Harding was the lone engineer on the train, which was carrying crude oil from North Dakota to an oil refinery in New Brunswick. Mr. Harding took control of the train in Montreal.

Late in the evening of July 5, he stopped for the night in Nantes, a hamlet uphill from Lac-Mégantic, and parked his train on the mainline.

Though exhausted after the journey, Mr. Harding took the laborious step of setting the mechanical hand brakes — a train’s version of an automobile parking brake — on the five lead locomotives, an equipment car and an empty boxcar.

That was the first big mistake. Investigators calculated that Mr. Harding should have also secured the hand brakes on 18 to 26 of the tank cars before retiring to his hotel.

But the corner cutting by the solo worker initially didn’t matter. The train stayed put because he had also applied air brakes on the locomotives. Not long after he left, however, a small fire broke out in the lead locomotive. A fire crew extinguished it and, following the railway’s instructions, shut down the engine.

That was the second big mistake. Turning off the lead engine also cut off the brakes’ air compressor, eliminating the pneumatic pressure needed to keep the brakes applied. When the brakes ultimately released about an hour after midnight, the train began rolling downhill for seven miles to Lac-Mégantic, gaining speed all the way.

Mayor Julie Morin with a plan for the reconstruction of downtown Lac-Mégantic.
Mayor Julie Morin with a plan for the reconstruction of downtown Lac-Mégantic. Credit Ian Willms for The New York Times
WHAT WE FOUND

Recurring Runaways

Making sure that no one now operates a train alone was applauded by safety experts. But requiring multiple crew members is no guarantee runaway trains won’t happen.

The number of runaway trains in Canada has increased by about 10 percent over the last decade, with 62 trains taking off on their own in 2017. In February, three Canadian Pacific employees died when a runaway train that had been parked on a mountain slope in British Columbia flew off a bridge.

Hand brakes have not evolved all that much since the 19th century, and applying them is slow, backbreaking work.

“Hand brakes are good,” said Ms. Fox. “But they need to have some other defense, because hand brakes can be defective.”

There’s little sign, however, that Canadian railways are adopting new technologies, like electronically controlled brakes, that have the potential to stop runaway trains.

Much of Lac-Mégantic remains a wasteland.
Much of Lac-Mégantic remains a wasteland. Credit Ian Willms for The New York Times
WHAT WE FOUND

A Barren, Devastated Downtown

The fuel explosion that took 47 lives also destroyed 40 buildings in Lac-Mégantic, a resort and industrial town abutting a scenic lake.

A $150 million decontamination program led to the demolition of another 37 buildings and the removal of 294,000 tons of rubble and soil. Adding to the pain of many survivors, the first thing to be rebuilt at the disaster site were the rail tracks themselves, an important lifeline for the town’s factories.

While new roads now run through the former disaster zone, most of it is barren, filled with underused parking lots.

Driving through the wound that was once downtown remains too painful for many in Lac-Mégantic. In a disaster that killed nearly 1 percent of the town, it’s not a question of if residents knew someone who died, but how many.

“Every time I cross this desert, I feel death’s been there, and it’s still there,” said Gilbert Carette, a member of a citizens’ rail safety group formed after the wreck. “The best medicine to heal people’s minds would be to fill this empty place.”

For many residents, the most important project is moving the tracks to the northern edge of town. Last year, the federal and Quebec governments agreed to pay for a $100 million rail bypass, but the estimated completion date is four years away.

The town’s reconstruction office does have ambitious plans for a new downtown, but Julie Morin, mayor since 2017, said that developers would stay away until the train line was moved. She does not anticipate that anything approaching the old downtown will return for a generation.

“It’s really haunting us, cause we’re still living this tragedy,” said Mr. Carette. “People have that feeling that everything is frozen downtown.”

The still-desolate landscape also serves as a wrenching reminder for the country as a whole about the risks that come with the railways running through so many towns.

Ms. Fox, of the safety board, said the disaster had left a mixed legacy.

“It would be unfair to say that no progress has been made,” she said. “But I also think it would be inaccurate to say that we can sit back and relax. Because there’s still more that can be done.”

The Takeaway: A concerted push on safety, but trains still pull deadly cargo through downtowns across Canada.


Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated when Lisa Raitt was transport minister. She became minister nine days after the crash; she was not the minister at the time of the crash.
A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto and currently lives in Ottawa. He has reported for The Times about Canada for more than a decade.
A version of this article appears in print on , Section A, Page 4 of the New York edition with the headline: Years After Fiery Crash, Deadly Cargo Still Rides the Rails.
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    Derailment explosion – 3rd accident in North America involving upgraded DOT-117R tank cars

    Repost from DeSmog

    Ethanol Train Derails and Burns in Texas, Killing Horses and Spurring Evacuation

    By Justin Mikulka, April 25, 2019
    Fort Worth ethanol train fires
    Screen shot of emergency personnel watching an ethanol train burn near Fort Worth, Texas. Credit: Glen E. Ellman

    Early in the morning on April 24, an ethanol train derailed, exploded, and burned near Fort Worth, Texas, reportedly destroying a horse stable, killing three horses, and causing the evacuation of nearby homes. According to early reports, 20 tank cars left the tracks, with at least five rupturing and burning.

    While specific details have not yet been released, it appears to be a unit train of ethanol using the federally mandated DOT-117R tank cars, based on the images showing tank car markings. This is now the third accident in North America involving the upgraded DOT-117R tank cars, all resulting in major spills of either oil or ethanol.

    This latest fiery derailment highlights the dangers to the estimated 25 million people living within the blast zone along rail lines across North America. While this incident had no human fatalities, the oil train disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013 killed 47 people, devastating the small Canadian town. As I’ve exhaustively reported, the same risk factors for hauling oil by rail, and increasingly, ethanol, are still in place years after the Lac-Mégantic disaster.

    In Texas, first responders were quickly on the scene and able to contain the fire, preventing the situation from worsening. When ethanol rail tank cars are involved in fires, the unpunctured tanks can explode as the fire increases the temperature and pressure in the full tanks.

    For example, after a BNSF train derailed in Montana in August 2012, eight of the 14 cars carrying ethanol caught fire, resulting in an explosion and the signature “bomb train” mushroom cloud–shaped ball of fire.

    Video: Fort Worth ethanol train derailment. Credit: Glen E. Ellman

    Ethanol Industry Adopting Risky Oil Train Practices

    In 2016 DeSmog published a series of articles analyzing why oil trains were derailing at over twice the rate of ethanol trains. Likely contributing factors included the fact that the derailing oil trains were longer and heavier than ethanol trains.

    The oil industry was moving oil using “unit trains,” which are long trains dedicated to a single commodity, while the ethanol industry was using shorter trains. The majority of ethanol was shipped as part of manifest trains, carrying multiple types of cargo and not just ethanol.

    As part of the analysis, DeSmog found that derailing ethanol trains tended to be longer trains of 100 or more cars.

    However, longer trains are more profitable, and in 2016 the ethanol industry noted it intended to follow the lead of the oil industry and begin to move more ethanol via long unit trains. This announcement led to the following conclusion in the 2016 DeSmog series:

    “Based on the ethanol industry’s interest in using more unit trains for ‘efficiency,’ and the fact that it is allowed to transport ethanol in the unsafe DOT-111 tank cars until 2023, perhaps it won’t be long before ethanol trains are known as bomb trains too.”

    And while the DOT-111 tank cars are less robust than the DOT-117R tank cars, both have a history indicating neither are safe to move flammable liquids in unit trains. And DOT-117R tank cars are heavier than DOT-111s, adding another factor that increases chances for train derailment.

    Bomb Train Risks Continue to Grow

    After a string of oil trains filled with volatile crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale derailed and exploded in 2013 and 2014, there was a push for new safety regulations for trains carrying flammable materials including crude oil and ethanol.

    In 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation released new regulations, which, as DeSmog noted at the time, were a big win for the oil and rail industries and their lobbyists. While touted as increasing safety, these watered-down rules did not address the trains’ known risk factors or require the oil and rail industries to implement proven safety technologies. The one requirement in the new 2015 regulations that would have greatly improved safety mandated that railroads transition to modern braking systems. That requirement has since been repealed.

    The rail industry frequently calls the upgraded tank cars, which include DOT-117Rs and were required by federal regulators, a safety improvement. However, in the first two derailments involving the new cars, those purportedly safer tank cars led to major oil spills. One of those occurred in February in Manitoba, Canada, and now the Fort Worth derailment appears to represent a third example of these upgraded rail cars’ failed safety.

    In 2014 during rail safety discussions, the rail industry was recommending using much more robust tank cars — known as “pressure cars” — to move the volatile crude oil implicated in oil train explosions, but federal regulators did not incorporate the recommendation into the final rules. That is why oil and ethanol continue to be moved in rail cars that fail and lead to large leaks and fires during derailments.

    In Utah a train carrying propane in pressure cars recently derailed, highlighting the risk of even those more robust tank cars. That derailment caused a propane leak, and hazmat experts decided the safest thing to do was detonate the tank cars, a situation possible when in rural Utah. However, health experts were concerned about the impact on air quality for local residents.

    Despite the many examples of the risks of moving these flammable materials by rail, President Trump recently issued an executive order mandating federal regulators allow moving liquefied natural gas (LNG) by rail as soon as next year.

    These risks are why a group of people were just arrested for blocking oil train tracks in Oregon. And why legislators in the state of Washington have passed legislation requiring oil be stabilized — to make it less volatile and likely to ignite — prior to its loading on rail tank cars for shipment. Several states also are looking at passing laws requiring two-person crews for freight trains to improve safety. One of the factors cited in the deadly Lac-Mégantic oil train disaster was that the train was operated by a single person.

    States are moving to address these very real, well-documented, and preventable risk factors because the U.S. federal government has fallen short in mitigating those risks to American communities from the oil and rail industries. These regulatory shortcomings, which began under President Obama’s administration, have only intensified under the Trump administration’s anti-regulatory approach. With the prospect of LNG trains in the near future — along with record amounts of oil trains coming from Canada to U.S. ports and refineries — the risks of “bomb train” accidents (the nickname bestowed by nervous rail operators) continue to grow.

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      Portland Police Arrest Protesters Blocking Oil Train Tracks With a Garden

      The arrests came on Earth Day

      By Allison Place, Willamette Week, April 22 at 5:19 PM
      Portland police arrest an environmental protester at Zenith Energy on 4/22/19. (Allison Place)

      Portland Police officers arrested 11 protesters this afternoon who were sitting on railroad tracks to protest Zenith Energy’s rapidly expanding import of Alberta tar sands oil.

      Two dozen officers arrived around 3:30 pm today—Earth Day—to remove protesters from the train tracks at Zenith’s facility in Industrial Northwest Portland.

      Before that, protestors spent much of the day sitting on the railroad tracks, chatting and munching on Ritz crackers. Yesterday, they had dumped a load of topsoil and planted a garden over the tracks.

      “This is our second day. We came here to launch Extinction Rebellion, which is part of an international movement,” said protestor Ken Ward, who became famous in 2016 for turning off a valve to shut off the crude-oil pipeline that runs from the Alberta tar sands to Washington State for refining.

      “[Zenith] is a poster child for government being unable to take effective steps on climate,” Ward added. “We have a company trying to triple the [amount] of Canadian tar sands oil sent through Portland when Portland doesn’t want to be expanding it’s fossil fuel infrastructure—and yet nobody seems to be able to do anything about it.”

      City Council voted in 2015 to block further expansion of fossil fuels in Portland. Zenith’s oil shipments have grown rapidly since then, calling into question what the city will do about the energy plant.

      Ward has been arrested 3 times previously for his activism, and he was among those arrested today.

      Leah Francis, an organizer with Extinction Rebellion PDX, said she’d only slept two hours over the last two days while protesting Zenith.

      “We need to move on to tactics that actually demand something of power,” said Francis. “If you’re an environmentalist in Mexico, you can end up with your head cut off in a ditch. Getting arrested in Multnomah County where we’ll be released without bail with a minor misdemeanor charge seems like a non-issue to me.”

      Protestors sang “Let it Be” by John Lennon while awaiting arrest.

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        Portland activists block rail line at Zenith oil terminal

        Extinction Rebellion plants ‘Victory over fossil fuels Garden’ at crude oil exporter on Sunday.

        Repost from the Portland Tribune, by Zane Sparling, April 21, 2019

        PMG PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - Activists planted a 'Victory over fossil fuels Garden' along a BNSF rail line leading to the Zenith Energy oil terminal in Northwest Portland on Sunday, April 21.
        PMG PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING – Activists planted a ‘Victory over fossil fuels Garden’ along a BNSF rail line leading to the Zenith Energy oil terminal in Northwest Portland on Sunday, April 21.

        Operations at Oregon’s only crude oil export terminal went off the rails on Earth Day weekend — after activists blocked all train traffic leading to the Northwest Portland facility.

        Extinction Rebellion protesters dumped topsoil and planted a “Victory over fossil fuels Garden” on and adjacent to the train tracks as early as 6 a.m. on Sunday, April 21. By mid-day, a tiny house, large globe and a crowd of at least 100 had sprouted outside the Zenith Energy terminal, 5501 N.W. Front Ave.

        A BNSF oil train was turned back from the rail spur around 9 a.m. Activists say they plan to occupy the site indefinitely.

        PMG PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING – Prominent activists and East Multnomah County resident Ken Ward speaks to a crowd during an occupation of a Zenith Energy terminal rail line on Sunday, April 21 in Portland.

        “We are here to demand from our political leadership, at the city and county level, that they take effective action to end Zenith terminals,” said Corbett resident Ken Ward, whose well-known exploits include a 2016 arrest for activating the Trans Mountain pipeline emergency shutoff valve.

        “What we have to do to preserve liveable conditions on the planet, and what seems to be politically feasible now — there’s a gap there, and we have to close it,” Ward continued.

        Long used as an asphalt and oil storage center, operations ballooned after Zenith purchased the terminal from Arc Logistics in December, 2017. Permits approved in 2014 allow Zenith to unload as many as 44 train cars at a time — though the swarm of tanker cars activists say they usually see were less visible on Easter Sunday.

        Demonstration organizer Mia Reback led the crowd on a sidewalk tour of the area, highlighting the construction of new unloading platforms, an additional rail spur and a cinder block fence topped with barbed wire.

        She said the 18 full-time workers on site use Naphtha diluent to flow the thick tar sands off the rail cars and into massive storage tanks. From there, the crude oil is pumped across the street to a Chevron dock and onto sea-going vessels destined for U.S. and foreign refineries.

        PMG PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - A demonstrator peaks over the newly-constructed cinder block fence surrounding unloading platforms at a Zenith Energy terminal on Front Street in Northwest Portland.
        PMG PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING – A demonstrator peaks over the newly-constructed cinder block fence surrounding unloading platforms at a Zenith Energy terminal on Front Street in Northwest Portland.

        “Zenith is doubling down on the fossil fuel industry at a time when we know we have to get off fossil fuels to stop catastrophic climate change.” Reback said.

        The 11 terminal companies located on Front Avenue store natural gas, asphalt and about 90 percent of the fuel sold at gas stations in Oregon and Southwest Washington. Zenith, however, has unique status as an exporter, and activists say the fire suppression equipment installed by the company isn’t adequate.

        “All of these tanks along here are built on fill,” said David Scharf, a Scappoose resident. “If we get the big earthquake… the assumption is pretty much all of these tanks could burst.”

        “It’s just an accident waiting to happen,” added Jane Heldmann of Portland.

        In March, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler told the Tribune that he does not support the infrastructure expansion due to its location in an earthquake liquefaction zone. In a lettersent on Sunday, the occupiers called on the full City Council to rezone the land as open space.

        Representatives with the Portland Police Bureau and Zenith Energy did not immediately return requests for comment.

        PMG PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING - Zenith Energy's facility in Northwest Portland on Front Avenue is shown here.
        PMG PHOTO: ZANE SPARLING – Zenith Energy’s facility in Northwest Portland on Front Avenue is shown here.
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