Oil train death toll likely to hit 50

Associated Press

LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec — Everyone missing in the fiery crash of a runaway oil train in Quebec is presumed dead, police told grieving families, bringing the death toll to 50 in Canada’s worst railway catastrophe in almost 150 years.

Meanwhile, attention focused on the CEO of the railway’s parent company, who faced jeers from local residents and blamed the train’s engineer for improperly setting its breaks before the disaster.

Officials said Wednesday evening that 20 bodies had been found in this burned-out town, and 30 people were missing.

“We informed them of the potential loss of their loved ones,” said Quebec police inspector Michel Forget, who came to an afternoon news briefing from a meeting with families of the dead and missing. “You have to understand that it’s a very emotional moment.”

Edward Burkhardt, the head of the train’s U.S.-based parent company blamed the engineer for failing to set the brakes properly before the unmanned Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train hurtled down a seven-mile (11-kilometer) incline, derailed and ignited in the center of Lac-Megantic early Saturday. All but one of its 73 cars was carrying oil, and at least five exploded.

The crash has raised questions about the rapidly growing use of rail to transport oil in North America, especially in the booming North Dakota oil fields and Alberta oil sands far from the sea.

The intensity of the explosions and fire made parts of the devastated town too hot and dangerous to enter and find bodies days after the disaster. Only one body had been formally identified, said Genevieve Guilbault of the coroner’s office, and she described efforts to identify the other remains as “very long and arduous work.”

Burkhardt, president and CEO of the railway’s parent company, Rail World Inc., faced jeers from residents and scorn from Quebec’s premier as he made his first visit to the town since the disaster. He was expected to meet with residents and the mayor Thursday.

Burkhardt said the train’s engineer had been suspended without pay and was under “police control.”

Investigators also had spoken with Burkhardt during his visit, said a police official, Sgt. Benoit Richard. He did not elaborate.

Until Wednesday, the railway company had defended its employees’ actions, but that changed abruptly as Burkhardt singled out the engineer.

“We think he applied some hand brakes, but the question is, did he apply enough of them?” Burkhardt said. “He said he applied 11 hand brakes. We think that’s not true. Initially we believed him, but now we don’t.”

Burkhardt did not name the engineer, though the company had previously identified the employee as Tom Harding of Quebec. Harding has not spoken publicly since the crash.

“He’s not in jail, but police have talked about prosecuting him,” Burkhardt said. “I understand exactly why the police are considering criminal charges … If that’s the case, let the chips fall where they may.”

Investigators are also looking at a fire on the same train just hours before the disaster. A fire official has said the train’s power was shut down as standard operating procedure, meaning the train’s air brakes would have been disabled. In that case, hand brakes on individual train cars would have been needed.

The derailment is Canada’s worst railway disaster since a train plunged into a Quebec river in 1864, killing 99.

Quebec police have said they were pursuing a wide-ranging criminal investigation, extending to the possibilities of criminal negligence and some sort of tampering with the train before the crash. The heart of the town’s central business district is being treated as a crime scene and remained cordoned off by police tape.

At a news conference shortly before Burkhardt’s arrival, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois faulted his company’s response.

“We have realized there are serious gaps from the railway company from not having been there and not communicating with the public,” Marois said. She depicted Burkhardt’s attitude as “deplorable” and “unacceptable.”

Burkhardt, who arrived in town with a police escort, said he had delayed his visit in order to deal with the crisis from his office in Chicago, saying he was better able to communicate from there with insurers and officials in different places.

“I understand the extreme anger,” he said. “We owe an abject apology to the people in this town.”

In an exchange with reporters, Burkhardt defended the practice of leaving trains unmanned, as was the case when the train rolled away. Canadian transportation department officials have said there are no regulations against it.

“For the future we, and I think probably the rest of the industry, aren’t going to be leaving these trains unmanned,” Burkhardt said. “We’ll take the lead with that. I think the rest of the industry is going to follow.”

Among the residents looking on as Burkhardt spoke was Raymond Lafontaine, who is believed to have lost a son, two daughters-in-law and an employee in the disaster.

“That man, I feel pity for him,” Lafontaine said. “Maybe some who know him properly may think he’s the greatest guy in the world, but with his actions, the wait that took place, it doesn’t look good.”

The disaster forced about 2,000 of the town’s 6,000 residents from their homes, but most have been allowed to return.

Quebec oil-train tragedy triggered oil spill that threatens water supplies

John Upton, Grist

The deadly oil-train explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, on Saturday also sparked an environmental disaster. An oil sheen has stretched more than 60 miles down a river that’s used as a source of drinking water.

By Tuesday morning, 13 people had been confirmed dead and some 37 were still missing after runaway train cars loaded with fracked crude from North Dakota derailed in the town and ignited. Lac-Mégantic’s fire chief said the fire is now under control, but a small area of town is still off limits for safety reasons. Emergency crews continue to search for bodies of the missing. Officials are urging relatives to provide them with DNA, such as on toothbrushes, to help them identify the dead, and are warning that some of the bodies may never be identified.

Meanwhile, water and environment officials are facing up to a crisis of their own. An estimated 26,000 gallons of oil that spilled from the rail cars flowed into the Chaudière River. Residents downstream are being asked to conserve water as municipalities switch to backup sources. From CBC News:

Quebec Environment Minister Yves-François Blanchet told CBC’s Quebec AM that he flew over the Chaudière River Sunday to see the extent of the damage caused by the oil spilled from the derailed tankers.

“What we have is a small, very fine, very thin layer of oil which, however, covers almost entirely the river for something like 100 kilometres from Lac-Mégantic to St-Georges-de-Beauce,” he said.

“This is contained at St-Georges-de-Beauce for the time being, most of it, or almost entirely, and we are very confident we will be in a position to be able to pump most of it out of the river. However, there will be some impact.”

From the BBC:

A spokesman for Quebec’s environmental ministry says floating barriers and other tools are being used to block the oil from heading downstream.

But the pollution has already reached the nearby town of Saint-Georges, prompting fears oil could flow into the St Lawrence River.

Air quality in the town is also a concern. Officials say the air is safe, but an odor may remain.

Quebec rail disaster shines critical light on oil-by-rail boom

By Scott Haggett, Dave Sherwood and Cezary Podkul

(Reuters) – The deadly train derailment in Quebec this weekend is set to bring intense scrutiny to the dramatic growth in North America of shipping crude oil by rail, a century-old practice unexpectedly revived by the surge in shale oil production.

At least five people were killed, and another 40 are missing, after a train carrying 73 tank cars of North Dakota crude rolled driverless down a hill into the heart of Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where it derailed and exploded, levelling the town centre.

It was the latest and most deadly in a series of high-profile accidents involving crude oil shipments on North America’s rail network. Oil by rail – at least until now – has widely been expected to continue growing as shale oil output races ahead far faster than new pipelines can be built.

Hauling some 50,000 barrels of crude, the train was one of around 10 such shipments a month now crossing Maine, a route that allows oil producers in North Dakota to get cheaper domestic crude to coastal refiners. Across North America, oil by rail traffic has more than doubled since 2011; in Maine, such shipments were unheard of two years ago.

“The frequency of the number of incidents that have occurred raises legitimate questions that the industry and government need to look at,” said Jim Hall, managing partner of consultants Hall & Associates LLC, and a former chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.

“The issue here is: are they expanding too rapidly?” he said. “Are they in a rush to accommodate and to make the economic advantage of carrying these?”

MUCH AT STAKE

There are many unanswered questions about the Quebec disaster that will likely shape the public and regulatory response, including why a parked freight train suddenly began rolling again, and why carloads of crude oil – a highly flammable but not typically explosive substance – caused such widespread disaster.

“There may have been some vapours, maybe? I don’t know. We don’t know exactly what happened,” Edward A Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, said in an interview on Saturday when asked about why the tankers may have exploded.

Apart from the human toll, the disaster will draw more attention to environmental risks of transporting oil.

Much is at stake: Oil by rail represents a small but important new source of revenue for big operators like Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd (CP.TO: Quote, Profile, Research) and Warren Buffett’s BNSF, which have suffered a drop in coal cargo. It is also a flexible and cheaper option to more expensive European or African crude for refiners like Irving Oil, which confirmed on Sunday that the train was destined for its 300,000 bpd plant in Saint John, New Brunswick.

And for producers like Continental Resources Inc (CLR.N: Quote, Profile, Research) which have pioneered the development of the Bakken fields in North Dakota, railways now carry three-quarters of their production; new pipelines that can accommodate more oil are years away.

Saturday’s train wreck may also play into the rancorous debate over the $5.3 billion Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the U.S. Midwest, which is hinging on President Barack Obama’s decision later this year.

Obama said last month that approval for the line would ultimately depend on its impact on carbon-dioxide emissions. An earlier draft report from the State Department suggested that rejecting the project would not affect emissions because crude would still be shipped by rail.

As a result, the incident may strengthen the resolve of those opposed to the Keystone pipeline rather than soften resistance. The oil industry at large is already broadly supportive of both rail and pipeline transport.

“Committed critics … could conceivably seize upon the Lac-Megantic incident – in tandem with recent pipeline spills – to argue against oil production, irrespective of its mode of transport,” said Kevin Book, managing director of Research at ClearView Energy Partners.

MOVE IT BY RAIL

The railway industry has this year mounted a more robust effort to counter the suggestion that rail is a riskier way to transport crude than pipelines.

The American Association of Railroads has declined to comment on Lac-Megantic, but previously said its spill rate – based on the number of gallons of crude oil spilled versus every million miles of transport per barrel – is less than half that for pipelines.

The AAR also said the number of train accidents involving the release of hazardous material has dropped by 26 percent since 2000, and by 78 percent since 1980.

Since the beginning of the year, U.S. railroads moved nearly 360,000 carloads of crude and refined product, 40 percent more than in 2012, according to the AAR. In Canada, year-to-date traffic is up 24 percent.

With that growth has come a number of high-profile spills and accidents, many on Canadian Pacific Railway’s network, which runs through Alberta, the largest oil exporter to the United States, and the Bakken field.

Canadian Pacific suffered the industry’s first serious spill in late March, when 14 tanker cars derailed near Parkers Prairie, Minnesota, and leaked 15,000 gallons of crude. Regulators have not released the results of their investigation into the incident, and Canadian Pacific declined to comment.

Even before Saturday’s disaster, the practice of shipping oil by rail was stirring opposition in Maine.

“It’s a wake-up call of the worst kind,” said Meaghan LaSala, an organizer with 350 Maine, a group that opposes the hydraulic fracturing – or “fracking” – technology that makes shale production possible. “They say rail is the safest method, but there simply is no guaranteed way to transport such highly toxic and explosive materials.”

TOO SOON TO SAY

Many observers say it is too soon to say if the Lac-Megantic disaster will quell the crude-by-rail boom. Refiners not connected to the Midwest pipeline network will still use rail to access the cheapest crudes.

“On the face of it this should be a boost for pipeline solutions, especially given the improvements in pipeline technology over the past five decades,” said Ed Morse, managing director of commodity research at Citi Group.

But he and other analysts noted that not every devastating tragedy leads to new policy.

“We need all forms of transportation for oil, whether they’re rail, whether they’re pipeline, and no system is failsafe,” Charles Drevna, president of American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, said in a phone interview.

For Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, crude oil shipments are a relatively new phenomenon. With just 510 miles of line, the small railway primarily carried paper and forest products until the financial crisis, and had suffered in the years after until the shale boom came along.

In the first four months of the year, it carried about 16,500 barrels per day (bpd) of crude, 10 times more than a year before and up from zero in early 2011, according to data from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

“In the 10 years or so we’ve been in business, this is the only serious derailment we’ve ever had,” Burkhardt told Reuters in the interview.

Henry Posner III, a former business partner who invested with Burkhardt in a railroad in Estonia, said he could not recall any incidents similar to what happened in Quebec during the 5-1/2 years they were in business together.

“Safety is the most important component of railway culture in North America and that’s one of the things we’re most proud of having exported to Estonia,” said Posner, who chairs Railroad Development Corporation, a Pittsburgh-based company that invests in railroads.

(Reporting by Scott Haggett in Calgary, Alberta, Dave Sherwood in Portland, Maine, and Cezary Podkul in New York; additional reporting by P.J. Huffstutter in Chicago, Jonathan Leff in New York and David Ljunggen in Ottawa; editing by Tiffany Wu and Matthew Lewis)

Train explosion in Quebec stokes debate about oil transport

Reuters/Mathieu BelangerA firefighter walks past a burning train at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.

Reuters/Mathieu Belanger. A firefighter walks past a burning train at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.

John Upton, Grist

The latest disaster caused by the transport of oil across North America has wrecked the town of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec. A driverless train loaded with crude from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota derailed and exploded early Saturday in the town’s center.

Dozens of buildings were leveled and at least five people were killed, while 40 more were still missing as of Monday morning. The fracked oil was en route to New Brunswick, which is home to the largest oil refinery in Canada. From Reuters:

The train, which did not have an engineer aboard when it derailed, was hauling 72 tanker cars of crude from North Dakota to eastern Canada. It rolled downhill from an overnight parking spot, gathered speed and derailed on a curve in the small town of Lac-Megantic at 1 a.m. on Saturday.

Each car carried 30,000 gallons of crude oil. Four caught fire and exploded in an orange and black fireball that mushroomed hundreds of feet into the air and flattened dozens of buildings, including a popular bar.

“It looks like a war zone here,” said Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The disaster plunged the media into debate: Is it safer to move oil through underground pipelines (à la MayflowerKalamazoo, and Keystone XL), or to move it by rail?

Frackers and tar-sands miners are extracting record amounts of oil in America and Canada. Existing pipelines can’t carry the whopping bounty to refineries, so energy companies are seeking to lay lattices of new pipes. Meanwhile, the glut of liquid hydrocarbons is being loaded onto trains, which are being sent vast distances — and are triggering high-profile spills and accidents.

The Toronto Globe and Mail argues in the wake of the Lac-Mégantic disaster that “[p]ipelines are the safest way of transporting oil and natural gas, and we need more of them, without delay.” The New York Times considers the pipeline-vs.-train question more impartially, quoting environmental experts:

Edward Whittingham, the executive director of the Pembina Institute, an environmental group based in Calgary, Alberta, said there was not conclusive research weighing the safety of the two shipment methods.

“The best data I’ve seen indicates,” he said, “depending on your perspective, both are pretty much as safe as each other, or both are equally unsafe. There’s safety and environmental risks inherent in either approach.”

Accidents involving pipelines, Mr. Whittingham said, can be more difficult to detect and can release greater amounts of oil. Rail accidents are more frequent but generally release less oil.

But the comparison obfuscates an obvious reality: The oil can’t be moved safely at all. (Same goes for natural gas.)

After a string of pipeline and rail accidents in recent years, it’s clear that letting the energy industry move incendiary bulk fluids around the continent is like tossing a book of matches into the crib to keep little Johnny happy while his folks stare at the television. And that’s without even considering the climate impacts of the fossil-fuel mining binge, or the many hazards of fracking.

The weekend tragedy is a reminder that the energy industry can’t be trusted to do anything safely, let alone transport oil.

12 killer whales trapped in sea ice

Marina Lacasse / Canadian PressKiller whales surface through a small hole in the ice near Inukjuak, Northern Quebec, on Tuesday.

Marina Lacasse / Canadian Press
Killer whales surface through a small hole in the ice near Inukjuak, Northern Quebec, on Tuesday.

Associated Press

MONTREAL — A community in Quebec’s Far North is calling for outside help to free about a dozen killer whales trapped under a vast stretch of sea ice.

Locals in Inukjuak said the mammals have gathered around a single hole in the ice — slightly bigger than a pickup truck — in a desperate bid to get oxygen.

Mayor Peter Inukpuk urged the Canadian government Wednesday to send an icebreaker as soon as possible to crack open the ice and help them find open water. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans said it is sending officials to assess the situation.

“Fisheries and Oceans Canada is assessing the situation and are exploring every possible option, but will only be in a position to determine what – if anything – can be done once our specialists arrive on site,” spokesman Frank Stanek said in a statement.

A hunter first spotted the pod of about a dozen trapped whales Tuesday at the hole, which is on the eastern shore of the Hudson Bay. Inukjuak is about 1,500 kilometers (900 miles) north of Montreal.

Dozens of villagers made the one-hour snowmobile ride Tuesday to see the unusual spectacle. They snapped photos and shot video footage of the killer whales surfacing in the opening — and even thrusting themselves skyward while gasping for air.

One woman who made the journey to the gap in the ice said even a curious polar bear approached the hole amid the commotion. Siasie Kasudluak said the bear was shot by a local hunter for its meat.

The trapped orcas appeared to be in distress, but locals were ill-equipped to help out.

Kasudluak said the hole appeared to be shrinking in the freezing temperatures. Inukpuk believes the sudden drop in temperature recently caught the orcas off guard, leaving them boxed in under the ice.