Category Archives: Lac-Mégantic

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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    3 former MMA rail workers acquitted in Lac-Mégantic disaster trial

    Repost from CBC News

    3 former MMA rail workers acquitted in Lac-Mégantic disaster trial

    Locomotive engineer and 2 others found not guilty of criminal negligence causing 47 deaths
    Alison Brunette · CBC News · 19 January 2018
    Three former Montreal, Maine and Atlantic railway employees were acquitted in the July 6, 2013, train derailment that destroyed parts of downtown Lac-Mégantic, Que., killing 47 people. (CBC)

    Jurors have acquitted the three former Montreal, Maine and Atlantic (MMA) railway employees charged with criminal negligence causing death in the 2013 Lac-Mégantic rail disaster.

    Locomotive engineer Tom Harding, 56, rail traffic controller Richard Labrie, 59, and operations manager Jean Demaître, 53, were all charged after the derailment of a runaway fuel train early on July 6, 2013. Several tankers, carrying highly volatile crude oil exploded, turning downtown Lac-Mégantic into an inferno and killing 47 people.​

    There was an audible gasp in the courtroom when the verdict was delivered early Friday afternoon.

    Labrie couldn’t hold back tears as he described his relief. He said that his thoughts are with the community of Lac-Mégantic.

    “I would like to say the people of Lac-Mégantic, what they went through, they showed a huge amount of courage,” he said.

    “I wasn’t intending to cry. But I can tell you it was difficult — it was a long process.”

    View image on Twitter
    Just informed people at this coffee shop of the verdicts. There was an explosion of joy and clapping.  Justin Hayward @CBC_Hayward 

    The eight men and four women on the jury have been deliberating since Thursday morning, Jan. 11, at the Sherbrooke, Que., courthouse, after a marathon trial which began last September.

    The jurors have endured countless hours of technical testimony from train experts, heard dramatic audio recordings of emergency workers and railway employees from the night of the explosions, and listened to other former MMA employees called as Crown witnesses describe a work environment with little regard for safety standards and no budget for training.

    Quebec Superior Court Justice Gaétan Dumas thanked the jury members for their work, telling them that the case wasn’t easy.​

    “You are the most enthusiastic jury I have ever seen,” he said.

    Former Montreal, Maine and Atlantic locomotive engineer Thomas Harding leaves the court during a break in the trial in September. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

    Last, ill-fated journey

    Harding, who pitched in on the night of the disaster, helping emergency responders detach the fuel cars that hadn’t exploded, was the driver of the ill-fated fuel train.

    He picked up the 73-tanker car train in Farnham, Que., 60 kilometres southeast of Montreal, on the afternoon of July 5, 2013.

    Late that evening, he left the train idling on the tracks in the village of Nantes, 13 kilometres west of Lac-Mégantic, where it was to be picked up by an American crew the following day.

    During the three-month trial, the court heard how a fire broke out in the smokestack of that locomotive shortly after Harding left it unattended.

    Firefighters arrived and extinguished the fire, shutting down the locomotive’s engine and breakers, which disabled the air brakes that were securing the train. Jurors heard that less than an hour later, the runaway train barrelled down the tracks, derailing in downtown Lac-Mégantic. The resulting explosions engulfed the town in flames.

    Several of the Crown’s 31 witnesses described Harding as an experienced, knowledgeable and helpful co-worker, which the Crown alluded to in closing arguments.

    “Despite all comments on Harding, on July 5, he failed to do his job,” prosecutor Sacha Blais told the jury.

    “A careful engineer would have foreseen the danger.”

    Much of the Crown’s testimony revolved around the seven handbrakes Harding applied to the train, whether the engineer tested them and how many would have been sufficient to secure the train properly.

    In closing arguments, Harding’s lawyer, Charles Shearson, countered that the engineer followed the MMA’s general operating instructions.

    Shearson listed a number of other factors that contributed to the derailment, including the safety of one-man crews and MMA’s failure to conduct a risk assessment on the consequences of parking a heavy fuel train on a slope at Nantes. The Transportation Safety Board’s report identified the rail line between Nantes and Lac-Mégantic as the second steepest grade of any stretch of track in Canada.

    Jean Demaître, the ex-MMA operations manager was charged with criminal negligence. Richard Labrie, far right, is a former MMA rail traffic controller faced the same charge. (Alison Brunette/CBC)

    Accused waived right to mount defence

    Harding, as well as the other two accused, waived their right to mount a formal defence to the charges.

    Labrie, the rail traffic controller on duty that night, was on shift 200 kilometres away in Farnham, relying on information being provided to him by telephone, his lawyer, Guy Poupart, reminded the jury in closing arguments.

    Poupart said the Crown failed to “demonstrate in any way that a rail traffic controller placed in the same position as Labrie and given the same information, would have acted any differently.”

    Demaître, MMA’s senior manager in Quebec, was at home near Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu and on call on the night of the disaster. The Crown argued he had been negligent, ignoring complaints about the lead locomotive’s mechanical defects.

    “A supervisor should have ensured all safety,” Blais concluded.

    Demaitre’s lawyer, Gaétan Bourassa, urged the jurors to distinguish between his client’s actions and those of his former employer.

    “This is the trial of Jean Demaître, not the trial of MMA through Jean Demaître,” Bourassa said in his closing arguments.

    “There is a tremendous difference.


    ABOUT THE AUTHOR
    Alison Brunette is a reporter for CBC Quebec in Sherbrooke, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships.
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      Deadly Lac-Mégantic Oil Train Disaster Was Avoidable Corporate Crime

      Repost from DeSmogBlog

      Deadly Lac-Mégantic Oil Train Disaster Was Avoidable Corporate Crime

      By Justin Mikulka, October 24, 2017 – 17:39
      Lac-Mégantic before oil train explosion leveled its downtown
      Lac-Mégantic before oil train explosion leveled its downtown. (See below for before/after photo.)

      Damning new testimony from an engineer of the locomotive involved in the deadly 2013 oil train disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Canada, reveals several ways corporate cost-cutting directly led to the accident, which claimed 47 lives.

      We already knew for certain that a fire on the locomotive, which had been left parked and running for the night, per standard practice, was the direct cause of the disaster. That blaze resulted in the local fire department, directed by a rail company employee, to turn off the power to the locomotive. However, that action also shut off power to the air brakes, which eventually failed and caused the train to roll down the tracks into downtown Lac-Mégantic, where it exploded and leveled the area.

      However, in newly released testimony reported by CBCNews, we learn about a troubling exchange between train engineer François Daigle, who had driven the oil train two days before its fiery derailment, and his supervisor:

      Daigle said on that trip he noticed the locomotive kept losing speed and produced black smoke.

      Daigle told the court he reported the problems to his supervisor, Jean Demaître, and sent a fax to the repair shop in Maine at the end of his shift.

      Daigle said he asked Demaître to change the lead locomotive because of the repair issues.

      “What was Demaître’s answer?” Crown prosecutor Marie-Éve Phaneuf asked.

      “You’re complaining again?” Daigle said Demaître told him, continuing: “This is what we have, and at any rate, you are going to be receiving your pension after me.”

      Daigle said he understood that to mean no changes would be made.

      If that locomotive had been replaced, the Lac-Mégantic disaster most likely would not have happened.

      A Train Much, Much Too Heavy

      A second factor in the accident was related to its braking system. Once the fire department shut off the locomotive’s brakes, the train was only held in place by manual handbrakes, which proved insufficient for the train’s weight.

      In Daigle’s testimony, which is part of the criminal trial of three of his Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA) colleagues, he revealed that the train was almost 50 percent heavier than regulations allowed. The train’s maximum allowed weight was 6,300 tonnes. The actual weight was 9,100 tonnes. Would the handbrakes have been sufficient to hold the train in place if it wasn’t so much heavier than permitted?

      In his testimony Daigle also stated that management would not allow him to refuse to operate that train even when he knew it was overweight.

      On top of all this, we already knew that it was company policy for employees to save time by not engaging a train’s third “automatic” braking system. Even with everything else going wrong, if the automatic braking system had been engaged, this disaster would likely have been averted and 47 lives spared.

      It’s Not Them We Want

      Less than a week after the 2013 disaster, Martin Lukacs, columnist for The Guardian, wrote a prophetic statement: “the explosion in Lac-Mégantic is not merely a tragedy. It is a corporate crime scene.” He couldn’t have been more right.

      At DeSmog we have previously detailed the many other cost-cutting steps that led to this oil train disaster.

      However, there was one other person who certainly knew who was to blame long before Daigle’s testimony was released. Thomas Harding is the engineer currently on trial with two fellow employees, none of them executives. In 2014 I wrote a piece about Lac-Mégantic for DeSmog, titled, “Should CEOs Get Jail Time For Oil-By-Rail Accidents Like Lac Megantic?” In that story, I included the following description of the crowd of people who watched as Harding and the others were taken into court after their arrests:

      When Harding and two other crew members were frog marched into court after their arrest, Ghislain Champagne, the father of a woman who died in the Lac-Mégantic accident, yelled out, “It’s not them we want.”

      But perhaps the management at MMA would be inclined to reply: “Are you complaining again?”

      Images: Lac-Mégantic before and after the oil train explosion in 2013. | Credit: Claude Grenier, Studio Numéra, Lac-Mégantic.
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        SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE: Benicia’s rejection of oil trains could reverberate across country

        Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle

        Benicia’s rejection of oil trains could reverberate across country

        By Kurtis Alexander, 9/21/16 5:11pm
        The Valero refinery is seen in the background behind signage for a railroad crossing on Wednesday, October 22, 2014 in Benicia, Calif. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle
        The Valero refinery is seen in the background behind signage for a railroad crossing on Wednesday, October 22, 2014 in Benicia, Calif. Photo: Lea Suzuki, The Chronicle

        Benicia’s rejection of plans to bring trains filled with crude oil to Valero Corp.’s big refinery in the city was hailed Wednesday by critics of the country’s expanding oil-by-rail operations, who hope the flexing of local power will reverberate across the Bay Area and the nation.

        Of particular interest to environmentalists and local opponents, who for years have argued that Valero’s proposal brought the danger of a catastrophic spill or fire, was a last-minute decision by U.S. officials that Benicia’s elected leaders — not the federal government — had the final say in the matter.

        Word of that decision arrived just before the City Council, in a unanimous vote late Tuesday, dismissed Valero’s proposal for a new $70 million rail depot along the Carquinez Strait off Interstate 680. Valero had said the project would not only be safe but bring local jobs, tax revenue and lower gas prices.

        “We’re pleased with the decision and the implications it will have across the country,” said Jackie Prange, a staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of several groups opposed to the project. “This issue is live in a number of sites across the country. This is definitely a decision that I think cities in other states will be looking to.”

        As oil production has boomed across North America, so has the need to send crude via railroad. The uptick in tanker trains, though, has been accompanied by a spate of accidents in recent years, including a 2013 derailment in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic in which a 72-car train exploded and killed more than 40 people.

        The authority of communities to limit oil trains has been clouded by the assertion of some in the petroleum industry that local officials don’t have jurisdiction to get in the way. Companies like Valero have contended that railroad issues are matter of interstate commerce — and hence are the purview of the federal government.

        Shortly before Tuesday’s meeting, however, Benicia officials received a letter from the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, which wrote that Valero, based in Texas, was not a railroad company and that the proposed rail terminal fell under city jurisdiction.

        “It’s what I was waiting for to help me make my vote more defensible,” said Councilman Alan Schwartzman at the meeting.

        Earlier this year, Valero had asked the Surface Transportation Board for “preemption” protection for the project after Benicia’s Planning Commission rejected the proposal. The plan proceeded to the City Council upon appeal.

        The plan called for oil deliveries from up to two 50-car trains a day, many passing through several Northern California communities en route from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota. Those trains would carry as many as 70,000 barrels of oil.

        The company billed the project as a way to keep gasoline prices low in the absence of a major oil pipeline serving the West Coast. Crude is currently brought to the Bay Area mostly by boat or through smaller pipelines.

        On Wednesday, Valero officials expressed frustration at the city’s decision.

        “After nearly four years of review and analysis by independent experts and the city, we are disappointed that the City Council members have chosen to reject the crude by rail project,” spokeswoman Lillian Riojas wrote in an email. “At this time we are considering our options moving forward.”

        The vote directly hit the city’s pocketbook. Nearly 25 percent of Benicia’s budget comes from taxes on the oil giant, and the city coffers stood to grow with more crude. The refinery employs about 500 people, according to city records.

        But the city’s environmental study showed that oil trains presented a hazard. The document concluded that an accident was possible on the nearly 70 miles of track between Roseville (Placer County) and the refinery, though the likelihood was only one event every 111 years.

        The document also suggested that much of the crude coming to the Bay Area from North Dakota, as well as from tar sands in Canada, was more flammable than most.

        Several cities in the Bay Area and Sacramento area joined environmental groups in calling for rejection of the project.

        “The council’s vote is a tremendous victory for the community and communities all throughout California,” said Ethan Buckner of the opposition group Stand, who was among more than 100 people who turned out for the council’s verdict. “At a time when oil consumption in California is going down, projects like this are unnecessary.”

        At least two other plans are in the works for oil delivery by rail elsewhere in the region — in Richmond and Pittsburg. A handful of other proposals have been put forth in other parts of California, including the expansion of a rail spur at a Phillips 66 refinery in San Luis Obispo County, which is scheduled to be heard by the county planning board Thursday.

        Prange, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said this week’s finding by the Surface Transportation Board gives cities the confidence to reject the proposed oil trains, if they wish to do so.

        “It reaffirms the power of local government to protect their citizens from these dangerous projects,” she said.

        U.S. oil deliveries by rail have grown quickly, from 20 million barrels in 2010 to 323 million in 2015, according to government estimates. In response, federal transportation officials have worked to improve the safety of oil-carrying cars with new regulations.

        But over the past year, rail deliveries nationwide have slowed, in part because of the stricter rules as well as local opposition, falling crude prices and new pipelines.

        Critics have complained that the tightened rules have fallen short, pointing to incidents like a June train derailment in Mosier, Ore., which spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude into the Columbia River. Leaders in Oregon are discussing a statewide ban on crude trains.

        Kurtis Alexander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.
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