Lac Mégantic rail disaster

Lac-Mégantic in flames. Sûreté du Québec photo
Lac-Mégantic, Que. in flames. Sûreté du Québec photo

There is an important public policy backdrop to the disaster that befell the good people in Lac Mégantic, Quebec in July, when a freight train — with five locomotives and 72 tanker cars — jumped the tracks. The crude oil leaked and then exploded, killing at least 47 people, destroying much of the town, and contaminating the soil and a nearby lake.

The core responsibility of government is to protect its citizens from harm when at all possible. The question here is whether Ottawa has met its responsibility to safely regulate railway transportation. I was surprised to learn, for example, that there was but one engineer for the train. That driver had reached the limit of how many hours he could drive on that day and he left the train, unattended, on the tracks uphill from Lac Megantic while he went to a hotel to rest. In his absence, there was no one else attending the train.

Transport Canada allowed Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway Inc. to operate in this way. The company, preposterously, has defended the one-engineer practice, saying that it is safer to have only one driver because that creates fewer distractions. I must say that I have always felt safer in a jetliner with a co-pilot aboard than I would if there were but one pilot. 

There is also the question of the age and design of the tanker cars.  There are newer, sturdier and safer tanker cars than the ones that were being used here, but it has not been mandatory to use those newer cars to transport oil.

The government has largely removed itself from safety inspections  and oversight, and turned those responsibilities over to railway companies. This is an unsound policy and an abdication of the responsibility to protect.

Behind these immediate safety concerns lie others. The death train was carrying crude oil from the Bakken field in North Dakota.  That product is extracted using a process known as shale oil fracking, which many critics say inserts pollutants and carcinogens into the existing water supply.

This cargo travelled from Bakken into Canada and across the country destined for an Irving Oil Ltd. refinery in Saint John, N.B.  In the past five years, the volume of crude being shipped within Canada by rail has increased exponentially, from 500 carloads in 2009 to a predicted 140,000 carloads this year. The Bakken field has no pipeline connection, and that is largely true for the oil sands in Alberta. As a result, the oil and gas industry wants more pipelines, but there are pitched debates over plans to build them.

Meanwhile, the dire reality of global warming looms. The Prime Minister has touted Canada as an “energy superpower,” and the plan is to go full speed ahead on energy development in the oil sands. If that occurs, Canada cannot hope to meet even its modest commitments to reducing the intensity of carbon-based emissions. There is much to ponder and do, and we had best get it right.

This blog piece appeared on the United Church Observer website on August 8. I will write for the Observer every second Thursday. You can read by  the Observer on line by clicking HERE.

3 thoughts on “Lac Mégantic rail disaster

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  1. In regards to the Lac-Megantic incident, certainly this will bring to light all necessary inadequacies in the process, we hope. Having independently assessed the event since it occurred, and drilled down into multiple areas which contributed to cause, it is also clear that no one knew exactly what was contained in the oil. The extremely rapid production growth of the Bakken formation incited both refiners and rail to make changes to system at a rapid pace, without first understanding what the management of change hazards would yield.

    The lower energy explosions at Lac-Megantic resulted from the API Gravity grade of oil, the higher the number, the lighter the composite crude oil. Heavy crudes can run in the API 18-26 range, light crude oil is API 31 and above, Bakken typically produces API 36-44.

    What the light and very light crude oil contains is a higher percentage of explosive type liquids, that when placed under a sealed fire condition, will boil off these mediums (gasolines, napthas, butanes, etc.) into gas vapors, which pressure up the tankcar past bursting pressure ratings. Crude oil in the API 38-40 range has typically 30-35% by volume explosive hydrocarbon liquids.

    Having reviewed the recent letter from FRA’s Thomas J. Herrmann to the American Petroleum Institute, Mr. Hermann brings many issues to light, including the labeling of Crude Oil for rail transport, which was in alignment to my own conclusions. It can be noticed from the tankcars at Lac-Megantic that a diamond shaped red placard bearing UN-1267 with the number “3” was available on the ends of the tankcars. This refers to a Class III flammable liquid, with UN-1267 designating the cargo as petroleum crude oil. But this does not begin to describe the “grade” of crude oil, nor potential levels of toxic gases within, hence as Mr. Herrmann pointed out, insufficient to describe the hazards of the oil.

    In summary, the cart was placed well before the horse in terms of economics vs. hazards and risk assessment for this unchecked growth in crude oil by rail transport, Transport Canada’s approval of a single engineer was simply another contributor to add to the list


    1. Thanks Kirk for your detailed comment regarding the description and composition of the oil contained in the rail cars that derailed in Lac Megantic. I am not expert in any way on this topic but will assume that the Transportation Safety Board will get to the bottom of this. Thanks again.


      1. Dennis:

        Thanks much. I actually submitted several documents to the TSB, a summary of this was contained in an e-mail, although with the state of affairs, I am not sure how much visibility it reached.

        Kirk Clark
        Sr. Process Safety Risk Consultant


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