Recommendations include ensuring tank cars moving crude oil won’t easily rupture.
OTTAWA — The sort of disaster that struck Lac-Megantic may thankfully be rare but the consequences are so grave when serious derailments involving oil do occur, extraordinary measures must be taken to prevent them, say proponents of stricter protocols.
A Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train carrying 72 tank cars filled with oil exploded after it unexpectedly began rolling and went off the tracks in the small Quebec town on July 6, taking an estimated 47 lives.
The disaster – one of the worst rail accidents in Canadian history – has prompted as many as nine investigations and extensive discussion about how best to prevent a similar tragedy. Many seek urgent solutions given projections of steadily rising petroleum shipments by train.
The Canadian rail industry points to an improving safety record, noting the number of derailments – including those involving dangerous goods – is stable or decreasing.
There were four main-track derailments involving dangerous goods last year, below the 2008-12 annual average of eight incidents, according to the Transportation Safety Board. Derailments involving hazardous materials on secondary tracks stood at 32 in 2012, below the 2009-12 annual average of 37.
The Railway Association of Canada says 99.9977% of all dangerous goods shipped by rail reach their destination without a release caused by a train accident. It adds that the oil spillage rate is lower for railways than for pipelines.
Those who study catastrophes say the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
A major derailment of a train carrying large quantities of oil is what disaster experts call a low-probability, high-consequence event. In other words, it’s not likely to happen, but if it does the fallout may well be devastating.
“These are totally different from other types of train crashes,” said Ali Asgary, an associate professor of emergency management at York University in Toronto.
The rail industry has a very good safety record compared with other modes of transportation, said Manish Verma, an associate professor at McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business in Hamilton, Ont.
But that means only so much when dozens of tank cars filled with oil are passing through a community. “Even if something minor happens, the consequence could be very, very huge,” he said.
Previously a train might have a handful of tank cars carrying chlorine or other such hazardous goods, notes Keith Stewart, climate and energy campaign co-ordinator with Greenpeace Canada. Now a train might have scores of cars transporting oil to a refinery.
“That’s relatively new, and it’s a lot more dangerous because the consequences when something goes wrong are much higher,” Stewart said. “I’d look at it as loading the dice in favour of disaster.”
In 2009, major railways moved just 500 carloads of crude oil, but that has jumped to about 140,000 carloads a year, the railway association says.
While only about 3% of Canadian crude moves by rail, one industry estimate has the figure rising to as high as 25% by 2035.
Last week, in a preliminary response to the Lac-Megantic derailment, Transport Canada issued a series of emergency orders. From now on, at least two crewmembers must work trains that carry dangerous goods. In addition, no locomotive attached to a tank car filled with dangerous materials can be left unattended on a main track.
But those concerned about the hazards of transporting oil by train say much more must be done.
“You can never have absolute safety with moving fossil fuels, but it can be a lot safer than it is today,” Stewart said. “We just think the federal government hasn’t done its job, which is to set the rules in a way that protects community safety and the environment.”
Among the suggested solutions: ensuring the tank cars used to move crude oil will not easily rupture, giving trains with large amounts of crude priority in order to avoid unnecessary stops and delays, diverting trains carrying oil away from towns and cities, and shielding populated areas by reclaiming land around tracks or building barriers to protect people.
Stewart would like to see broad public hearings on the movement of oil by all modes, including rail, truck, pipeline and ship.
The Railway Association of Canada refused to make anyone available for an interview. However, in a recent commentary posted on the association’s website, president Michael Bourque says operators continue to improve safety when it comes to transporting crude oil and other dangerous goods.