Canada: New oil train crash highlights severe dangers

September 22, 2013

For the second time in three months, a CP Rail train carrying toxic and flammable hydrocarbons has derailed in the city of Calgary, in Alberta province.

On September 11, eight railway wagons carrying close to one million liters of a highly flammable gasoline product (diluent) used in the pipeline transport of tar sands bitumen derailed in the Inglewood neighbourhood.

The train was traveling at a slow speed while exiting CP Rail’s Alyth yard located near the center of the city. Brian McAsey, assistant deputy fire chief of Calgary, told the Calgary Herald: “[The product] is extremely flammable and very volatile.”

The derailment also ruptured a natural gas line. Apparently, none of the product spilled from the rail wagons.

Community protests

Seventy five Inglewood residents staged a protest two days later at the yard, chanting: “CP Rail, CP Fail.” They expressed their anger and frustration with the company's failure to address concerns stemming from its growing transport of oil-by-train and expansion of noisy and polluting diesel locomotive repair work at the Alyth yard.

Lara Murphy, one of the organizers of the action, told CBC News: “We don’t want another Lac Megantic to happen.” On July 6, an oil-carrying freight train exploded in the Quebec town of Lac Megantic, killing 47 people.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has criticised the rail transport set-up in Canada. Municipalities are responsible for emergency response and cleanup, but often do not know what is actually being carried on the trains.

Nenshi said: “This is not just massively inconvenient ― it’s massively dangerous.”

Murphy told the Calgary Beacon: “Our biggest concern is with the ramped-up transportation of oil and gas by the rail industry as a whole. If we’re gonna transport this oil, I feel and the group feels we need more transparency from the rail companies.”

Murphy is part of the Inglewood Community Association, which has been fighting CP Rail ever since it began to expand the traffic and locomotive repair work at Alyth in 2009. That brought formal noise complaints from the community.

Last month, a victory was scored when the Canadian Transportation Agency ordered the railway to shift its locomotive work to a different location within the yard and to curb some of its overnight work.

On June 27, six wagons on a CP Rail train also carrying toxic and highly flammable material jumped the tracks while crossing the Bow River on the 100-year old Bonnybrook Bridge. Reportedly, the weight of the cars caused the structural support of the bridge to give way.

The accident happened at the height of catastrophic flooding of southern Alberta that month. The rushing water of the Bow River, which passes through the centre of the city, may have weakened the bridge’s structure.

Transporting oil by rail in large volumes is a new phenomenon in Canada and the United States. Starting three years ago, it is expanding rapidly.

Among the many safety concerns it raises are questions about the ability of old and deteriorating rail lines and bridges to handle the exceptional weight of these trains.

In 2009, there were 500 railway oil wagons moved in Canada. This year, there will be about 140,000. In the US, there were 9500 wagons moved in 2008. That jumped to 234,000 last year and is on course to nearly double this year. Each wagon carries about 600 barrels.

Weak regulations ignored

Meanwhile, ongoing investigations by Canadian transportation authorities into the Lac Megantic disaster are revealing startling facts about poor railway safety in Canada.

A preliminary report by Transport Canada issued on September 12 says Quebec portions of the rail track of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MM&A)are “defective” and “substandard”, and do not meet safety standards. One section of the line was closed by inspectors following their investigations.

The MM&A line has been severed by the disaster. It is not know when, or if, the destroyed track will be replaced.

CP Rail and Irving Oil contracted with the MM&A last year to join in transporting crude oil from North Dakota to Irving’s refinery, Canada’s largest, in Saint John, New Brunswick, on the Atlantic coast.

CP brought the oil trains as far as Farnham, the MM&A moved them as far as northern Maine, and the Irving-owned NB Southern Railway completed the journey.

Irving Oil, part of the secretive Irving family conglomerate, has switched about 25% of its refinery supply away from overseas sources to North Dakota. The shift is prompted by changes in the prices of crude oil that have made North Dakota oil cheaper.

Several days earlier, the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) of Canada issued a statement on its ongoing investigation into Lac Megantic. The federal agency said the identification and labeling of the oil carried on the fateful train through the town was false.

Investigators were puzzled from the start by the extreme volatility of the product on the train. It exploded in a giant fireball near midnight on July 6 in the centre of the town when most of the 72-wagon train derailed. The surrounding ground and waters have been heavily polluted.

The Globe and Mail reported that the TSB has cited the North Dakota shipper, an affiliate of Miami-based World Fuel Services Corp., and the purchaser of the oil, Irving Oil, for failing to ensure the oil was properly classified and identified.

It turns out that the oil, which originated in the Bakken oil field in North Dakota (now the second largest reserve of oil in the US thanks to new, fracking technologies), is light and highly flammable. It should have been labeled a “class two” hydrocarbon instead of “class three”. Class two means more volatile and dangerous.

The change in designation might not have changed the outcome, as there are no additional regulations tied to class two. But it might have prompted extra care in securing the train, which was stationed overnight and by all evidence was inadequately braked.

It lost its braking and rolled driver-less into Lac Megantic. Regardless, it is another example of the lax rail safety regulations in the US and Canada that the disaster has brought to light. Rail carriers and their customers operate with too little public and regulatory scrutiny.

Since the July 6 disaster, the Irving conglomerate has found other routes to continue receiving North Dakota crude, including along the CN main line that connects Montreal to Halifax, Nova Scotia. CP Rail and CN Rail are the two branches of Canada’s railway duopoly. Each also has extensive track in the United States.

A report in the September 14 Portland Press Herald said that North Dakota crude shipments to Saint John through New England via another shortline railway similar to the MM&A ― Pan Am Railway ― have rolled to a halt.

That decision is being welcomed by opponents of oil by rail in Maine, including groups such as 350 Maine and Maine Earth First! that have been protesting and trying to block the shipments.

Fossil fuel expansion

Railway safety aside, the principal concern that the tragedy in Lac Megantic has highlighted is the crazed and reckless path of unbridled extraction and burning of fossil fuels down which the economic elites of the world are dragging humanity.

To wit, the Canadian government is ramping up efforts on behalf of the oil industry to find outlets for Alberta tar sands oil.

Frustrated by the campaign in the US that has so far given pause to President barack Obama in approving the Keystone XL pipeline, the government is lobbying heavily in the US for the virtues of tar sands oil, saying its pollution footprint is less than coal and that Canadian oil has a better “human rights” imprint than foreign oil.

The government is also flooding the province of British Columbia with cabinet ministers and publicity in a bid to weaken an environmental campaign that has so far blocked or slowed two proposed tar sands bitumen pipelines to the Pacific coast.

These pipelines are Canada―Enbridge’s Northern Gateway and the proposed expansion of the existing, Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain Pipeline.

The government is paying particular attention to wooing all-important support from First Nations peoples, including with money and promises of jobs.

The Pacific coast of BC is also getting hammered with expansion of coal exports fed by rail from western Canada and the US. There is a huge plan to expand natural gas fracking in the BC north-east and ship it to the coast by pipeline for liquefaction and export.

The tar sands pipeline blockage to the south and west has prompted a proposed C$12 billion “Energy East” pipeline project that would carry tar sands bitumen from Alberta to Montreal and then on to the Atlantic coast at New Brunswick and Maine in two proposed branches. Opposition to that project is starting to build.

Tar sands proponents received a setback recently when iconic singer/songwriter Neil Young travelled to the northern Alberta tar sands region and reported it was a “wasteland”. Young said it resembled Hiroshima after the US dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city in 1945.

[Roger Annis is a member of the newly-formed Vancouver Ecosocialist Group. Read his blog on environmental and other social justice issues.]

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