Quebec: Oil disaster exposes toxic mix of privatisation and fossil fuels

July 22, 2013

In the small hours of July 6, just after midnight, a train hauling 73 cars of petroleum products derailed and exploded in the centre of the town of Lac Megantic, Quebec.

A large number of the rail cars caught fire and exploded in huge fireballs. The centre of the town was razed and the rail cars were still burning 36 hours later.

By noontime on July 8, 13 people were declared dead and forty are still missing. Genevieve Guilbault, spokesperson for the Quebec coroner’s office, says that some victims were likely “vaporised” by the force of the explosions and fires and their bodies will never be found.

Lac Megantic is a town of 6000 people, 150 kilometres south of Quebec City, near the US border. The town and surrounding region draw tens of thousands of tourists from Canada and the US every year.

Incredibly, there was no one on board operating the train. An engineer had stationed the train overnight at the neighbouring village of Nantes.

He reportedly followed all procedures to set its stationary braking. But somehow, after the engineer had gone to a motel for the night, the brakes loosened and the train began to roll.

A news report on July 8 said firefighters from Nantes were called by the train line’s owners to a fire in the locomotive hours before the disaster. They found the train running but unlocked. They extinguished the fire and left.

The Toronto Star reports there were five locomotives pulling the train. Four were shut down for the night; one was left running to maintain stationary brake pressure. The train line’s owners say that fifth locomotive’s air brake pressure was shut off for reasons they do not know ― they allege tampering.

The train is part of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway. It has about 1000 kilometres of track in Quebec and in the US states of Maine and Vermont. It is owned by Rail World, formed in 1999 and describing itself itself as: “A railway management, consulting and investment corporation specializing in privatizations and restructurings.

“Its purpose is to promote rail industry privatization by bringing together government bodies wishing to sell their stakes with investment capital and management skills. Rail World was incorporated in July 1999 by Edward A. Burkhardt, who is the President and Chief Executive Officer.”

The MMAR network is a corporate cobbling together of secondary and older lines, some as old as 100 years, that were hived off by larger companies in past decades, notably Canadian Pacific, in their endless quest for higher profits. It includes the former Canadian Pacific rail connection linking Montreal to Saint John, New Brunswick via southern Quebec and northern Maine.

Rail World operates former state-owned rail lines in Poland, Finland, The Ukraine and the Baltic states. Burkhardt oversaw the privatisation of the rail and ferry networks in New Zealand during the 1990s. He serves as the honorary consul for New Zealand in Chicago.

Residents of Quebec and across Canada are shocked by this catastrophe, but scarily, they ain't seen nothing yet. The transport of petroleum products by rail in Canada is skyrocketing. CBC News said the number of rail cars of petroleum transported in 2011 was 18,000. The following year, it was 83,500.
The website Railroaded is dedicated to recording railway spills of oil, chemicals and other products on CN Rail, Canada’s largest rail company. CN is already hauling lots of oil, and is gearing up for more. The company has hundreds of derailments each year.

Railways are particularly eager to move Alberta tar sands product. Proposed pipelines are running into protest and resistance. Reporting on industry prospects for expansion of tar sands output, the Globe and Mail said on June 5: “The power of rail to deliver oil on existing tracks may be underestimated, and may significantly solve transportation issues, said Peter Tertzakian, an energy economist with ARC Financial Corp. in Calgary.

“'One has to keep in mind that 10 unit trains is equal to one Keystone XL. And 10 trains isn’t that many,' he said.”

The Conservative government in Ottawa has a conflicting relationship to oil-by-rail expansion. A May 23 Globe article reporting on rail’s prospects for moving tar sands product to the BC coast notes that no special permits are required of railways that decide to ramp up the volumes. Rail and pipeline transportation in Canada is a strictly federal responsibility.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper calls oil-by-rail “more environmentally challenging” than using pipelines. But that hesitancy has nothing to do with the “environment”, as any ordinary citizen would understand the term.

It is simply a statement of preference in the government’s aggressive championing of tar sands extraction ― pipelines are the preferred means of transport for financial as well public relations reasons.

The Harper government is lobbying heavily to gain approval for at least four new tar sands pipelines ― Keystone XL, south to the US; Northern Gateway and Trans Mountain to the BC coast; and a line to Montreal and Saint John, New Brunswick, with a possible branch from Montreal to Portland, Maine.

[Reprinted from Roger Annis is a writer and a social rights activist in Vancouver.]

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