SACRAMENTO – California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, as part of a multistate coalition, filed a comment letter to the Department of Transportation in support of the State of Washington and in opposition to an attempt by North Dakota and Montana to preempt Washington laws that create a limit on the level of vapor pressure allowed when transporting highly-flammable crude oil by freight rail.
These trains are often known as “bomb trains” because of the high intensity fires and violent explosions that can result from accidents and derailments. These trains travel through California, passing through both highly populated communities and areas adjacent to California’s most sensitive ecological areas.
The state asserts that Washington’s rules are both permissible and necessary in light of the risks of crude-by-rail in Washington and the EPA’s inaction on establishing protective standards, putting communities at risk.
“States play an important role in protecting the health and safety of their citizens,” said Attorney General Becerra. “Millions of Californians live, work, and attend school within the vicinity of railroad tracks. We can’t afford to wait for the next disaster before taking action on the transport of dangerous and flammable oil moving through our communities. A derailment or explosion in California could put countless lives at risk and cause major damage to our land and waterways. This risk is simply unacceptable.”
California supports Washington’s efforts to protect the public health and safety of its residents and its environment while the federal government dithers over adopting necessary regulations. The attorneys general underscore that their paramount concern will remain protecting the health and safety of citizens, first responders, and the environment within the parameters of the state’s existing authority.
Attorney General Becerra filed the comment letter with the attorneys general of New York, Maryland, and New Jersey.
However, Railway Age, the leading rail industry publication, attacked The Times’ coverage in an incredibly flawed critique. The title of finance editor David Nahass’s take-down is “Clickbait Journalism at The New York Times.”
In reality, both stories miss the mark on oil train safety.
The New York Times makes a major error in the industry’s favor regarding rail safety, as well as serious omissions about the risks of moving flammable cargo by rail.
Nevertheless, Nahass claims that The New York Times “sadly exhumes and retreads the memories of those lost and the pain of those who suffered trauma in order to generate readership.”
Nahass did get one thing correct in his story, which comes across like rail industry propaganda: “The perception of progress on the rail safety front is not universally perceived.” It isn’t universally perceived because, for the transport of flammable materials by rail, progress hasn’t happened. Instead, the Trump administration is in the process of rolling back the few meaningful regulations that had been put in place in the U.S. since the 2013 disaster.
To support his claim, Nahass points to three areas that he says have seen improvements in rail safety: tank car design, positive train control (PTC), and train speed guidelines.
Nahass cites the new tank car designs, DOT-117R and DOT-117J, as an industry action to improve oil train safety. But that claim is based on the premise that these rail cars do not rupture during accidents. Three accidents involving the DOT-117R tank cars have occurred in recent years, two with oil trains and one with an ethanol train.
As DeSmog has reported, all three were major disasters.
In June of 2018, an oil train derailed in Doon, Iowa. Fourteen of the DOT-117R tank cars ruptured, spilling 230,000 gallons of oil into a flooded river. In February, another oil train of DOT-117R tank cars derailed in Canada, resulting in another major oil spill. In April, an ethanol train with DOT-117R tank cars derailed and exploded in Texas, leading to the local evacuation of a residential area and causing a large fire that burned a stable and killed three horses.
Three crashes with the new “safe” tank cars. Three major failures. Railway Age’s failure to mention these accidents can only be described as “an editorial issue” of the type Nahass accuses The New York Times as being guilty of.
The one glaring error in favor of the rail industry from the Times’ coverage is that the “effectiveness [of DOT-117 tank cars] in a real-world disaster remains to be seen.” Considering all three accidents involving these rail cars resulted in fires, spills, and evacuations, this statement is a huge error. The rail industry’s top trade magazine should have been thanking The Times instead of attacking them.
As for the claim that speed limits have improved rail safety, that claim, too, is without merit. Every major oil train accident after the Lac-Mégantic disaster has happened below the speed limits. DOT-117 tank cars appear unable to withstand derailments at low speeds, as evidenced by them failing in three out of three accidents.
The sheer audacity of Nahass claiming that the rail industry deserves credit for positive train control (PTC), a system for monitoring and controlling train movements, as a safety measure is stunning.
Nahass says, “Avoidable death is a tragedy no one should have to bear.” Hundreds of people have died because the rail industry has been fighting PTC, which includes well-funded lobbying efforts. Avoidable deaths are not a tragedy for the rail industry but a by-product of successful lobbying and higher profits.
Meanwhile, neither The New York Times nor Railway Age mentions how new regulations to require modern braking systems on trains, which still use 19th century technology were repealed under the Trump administration.
Lac-Mégantic Was ‘a Corporate Crime Scene’
Shortly after the 2013 Lac-Mégantic 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.”
Even the Transportation Safety Board of Canada noted 18 factors that contributed to the deadly oil train accident. The fact that Nahass only listed three of these is another example of a blatant “editorial issue.”
Deregulation Caused Lac-Mégantic Deaths and Continues to Increase Risks
Nahass purports that the worst thing about The New York Times story was that “it highlights deregulation as a possible cause for the tragedy.” I have no doubt deregulation was the root cause of the Lac-Mégantic tragedy.
The accident could have been avoided if a back-up braking system had been engaged. But this system wasn’t used because the rail company, Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic (MMA), wasn’t required to and instead explicitly instructed the train’s engineer not to engage it.
The train was also much heavier than allowed. MMA knew this but instructed the engineer to ignore that fact, a sign of weak regulatory oversight. Despite attempts to require two-persons crews, the train that destroyed downtown Lac-Mégantic was allowed to be operated with only a single crew member — another risk factor. No regulations required the oil in the tank cars to have been “stabilized,” removing its flammable vapors. At the time, modern braking systems were not mandatory for trains carrying flammable cargo, and while a rule changing that was put in place in 2015, the Trump administration has since repealed it.
That fateful night in Quebec in 2013, a train full of flammable material was parked on the top of a steep hill above a small town. It was left on the main tracks, with the engine running, and no safety measures were in place to address known causes of runaway trains — a problem that The Times correctly notes has gotten worse since 2013.
At a November 2016 conference examining lessons from the Lac-Mégantic disaster, Brian Stevens, who at the time was National Rail Director for Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union, clearly cited deregulation as the root cause of the accident.
“Lac-Mégantic started in 1984. It was destined to happen,” said Stevens, referring to the start of a deregulatory era for rail that continues today in both the U.S. and Canada.
Even that freedom from regulation isn’t enough for the rail industry. Its main publication wants freedom from journalistic critique as well. The attack piece in Railway Age is not just an egregious editorial failure; it represents a basic moral failure of an industry that continues to put profit over safety.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
WHAT WE FOUND
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.
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.
“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.