Lac Megantic

Cost of Doing Business? Oil Companies Agree To Pay For Some of Lac-Megantic Damages, But Not to Solve the Real Problems

Although insisting the industry is not to blame, several of the oil companies involved in the fatal Lac-Megantic oil train accident in 2013 have agreed to contribute to a fund to compensate the families of the 47 victims in that accident.

The Wall Street Journal reported recently that oil companies Shell, ConocoPhillips, Marathon and Irving have all agreed to contribute to the fund to avoid future litigation, along with General Electric and the Canadian government. While the actual amounts contributed by most companies involved are not available, the total fund is reportedly at $345 million. That sounds like a lot of money but still is less than the $400 million retirement package for Exxon’s last CEO, for example.

Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. hasn't agreed to the settlement, according to the Bangor Daily News, which reports that the judge in the case has delayed his decision on the settlement. Canadian Pacific has asked the court to shield it from future litigation and challenged the Quebec provincial court’s jurisdiction.

Tar Sands by Rail Disasters: The Latest Wave in the Bomb Train Assault

With the first crash and explosion of a unit train of tar sands oil in Canada in February, we learned that the conventional wisdom among people covering the oil-by-rail industry regarding the flammability of tar sands oil has been dead wrong. A second derailment and explosion on March 7th involved synbit, which is a form of bitumen diluted with synthetic crude oil.

While there are many examples of this mischaracterization of the dangers of moving tar sands by rail that can be found in the press, here at DeSmogBlog we didn’t have to look far. In an article last year about how to make Bakken crude less dangerous we wrote that the government had plans to allow tar sands oil to be transported in the unsafe DOT-111 rail tank cars “because it is not explosive.”

While raw bitumen from the Alberta tar sands is not volatile or highly flammable, when it is diluted with natural gas condensate to form a mixture known as dilbit, which is typically done to make it easier to transport, it appears that it can be as dangerous as the Bakken crude that has now been proven to be highly flammable and explosive in multiple train derailments.

An article in Railway Age pointing out the implications of the tar-sands-by-rail accident had the ominous title “Why bitumen isn’t necessarily safer than Bakken” and concluded with the statement that “Should TSB [Transportation Safety Board] conclude that dilbit has a volatility similar to Bakken crude, as the Alberta research suggests, the hazmat classification of crude oil could be in question.”

Dangerous Oil Trains To Return to Lac-Megantic While Town Still Recovers

We’re seeing strong growth. We’re seeing some large accounts come back. The future is bright.”

According to the Portland Press Herald, that was the assessment of the future by Ryan Ratledge, the current chief operating officer for Central Maine and Quebec Railway, the railroad that runs through Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

Central Maine and Quebec Railway is the new name of the railroad that was operating the train that caused the oil train disaster in Lac Megantic in July 2013 that resulted in the death of 47 people. As DeSmogBlog reported previously, cost cutting measures by the railroad were directly linked to the cause of the accident. 

After the accident, the railway declared bankruptcy and the assets were purchased by Fortress Investment Group, which currently manages over $66 billion in assets.

Canadian Government: This Reporter's Question About ALEC 'Undeserving of Response'

ALEC light brigading

This article is re-published with permission from mikedesouza.com

As some of you may know, I’ll be starting a new role in January 2015 as an investigative resources correspondent for Reuters.

Getting access to records about government decisions and policies has long played a key role in the work of many journalists around the world. It will also be a key element for me in the weeks, months and years to come.

So to end off 2014, here are a few examples of some of my recent experiences with government efforts to either release or hide information.

Canada’s information watchdog has noted that the Supreme Court of Canada recognizes access to information as a quasi-constitutional right of all Canadians.

Obtaining access to information is an extension of freedom of expression since it allows the population to be informed and speak about government policies and decisions on how these governments spend public money.

‘Wild West’ Approach to Regulation in Bakken Shale Means Bomb Trains Continue to Roll

Wild west Bakken

Prepare yourself for a rare moment of honesty from the oil industry.

It happened on Sept. 23 at a hearing of the North Dakota Industrial Commission during a discussion on ways to make Bakken crude oil less flammable for transportation.

The flammable characteristics of our product are actually a big piece of why this product is so valuable. That is why we can make these very valuable products like gasoline and jet fuel,” said Tony Lucero of oil producer Enerplus.

So, there you have it: making Bakken crude safer to transport by rail via oil stabilization, which removes flammable natural gas liquids such as butane, means making it less valuable to the refineries.

This profit motive is at least part of the reason why the American Petroleum Institute has made it clear it will not accept mandatory oil stabilization as part of the new oil-by-rail regulations.

Report Reveals Cost Cutting Measures At Heart Of Lac-Megantic Oil Train Disaster

Today the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) released its final report on the July 6th, 2013 train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. The report produced a strong reaction from Keith Stewart, Greenpeace Canada’s Climate and Energy Campaign coordinator.

This report is a searing indictment of Transport Canada’s failure to protect the public from a company that they knew was cutting corners on safety despite the fact that it was carrying increasing amounts of hazardous cargo. This lax approach to safety has allowed the unsafe transport of oil by rail to continue to grow even after the Lac Megantic disaster. It is time for the federal government to finally put community safety ahead of oil and rail company profits or we will see more tragedies, Stewart said.”

Throughout the report there is ample evidence to support Stewart’s position and plenty to show why the people of Lac-Megantic want the CEO of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA), the rail company responsible for the accident, held accountable in place of the engineer and other low level employees currently facing charges.

At the press conference for the release of the report the TSB representatives often noted that they had found 18 factors that contributed to the actual crash and they were not willing to assign blame to anyone, claiming that wasn’t their role.

But several critical factors stand out and they are the result of MMA putting profits ahead of safety and Transport Canada (TC), the Canadian regulators responsible for overseeing rail safety, failing to do its job.

Should CEOs Get Jail Time For Oil-By-Rail Accidents Like Lac Megantic?

Lac Megantic train explosion

On May 12th, a heavily armed SWAT unit stormed the home of Thomas Harding and threw Harding, his son and a visitor to the ground. Harding was then handcuffed, arrested and taken for interrogation.

Harding was the engineer for the oil train that caused the explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. He had cooperated with authorities and was expecting to be charged. The excessive force used to arrest Harding was criticized for being a “politically motivated stunt” in The National Post.

No one is claiming that Harding intentionally caused the accident — however, he is the one facing charges that could result in life in prison.

Meanwhile, the oil industry has knowingly shipped explosive Bakken crude oil and, in the case of Lac-Megantic, misclassified the oil to make it appear less explosive than it actually was.

Irving Oil has been identified by Canada's Transportation Safety Board as the party ultimately responsible for insuring the proper classification of the oil it had purchased. No one from Irving Oil has been charged with any crime.

No Community is Prepared for Major Oil-By-Rail Accident, Senate Hearing Told

Just as you aren’t supposed to try to put out an oil fire in your kitchen with water, you aren’t supposed to try to put out a crude oil fire with water either. But in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that is all firefighters had for the first two days of battling the catastrophic oil-by-rail fire last July.

The fire burned until 8,000 gallons of firefighting foam finally arrived from Toronto, an eight-hour drive away. Forty-seven people were killed in the accident.

This lack of foam not only makes the job of first responders impossible when fighting these crude oil fires — it also greatly increases the environmental damage. While the Lac-Megantic firefighters were using water, they were helping the oil flow into the nearby lake and river. One and a half million gallons of oil were spilled. 

At a recent Senate Appropriations hearing on oil-by-rail safety, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Deborah Hersman was very clear about the state of preparedness in the United States when it comes to addressing accidents like the one in Lac-Megantic.

No community is prepared for a worst-case event,” Hersman said.

One of the main reasons no community is prepared for a worst-case oil-by-rail event is the loophole that exempts oil companies from needing comprehensive spill response plans in place. The NTSB has recommended this be changed, but regulators at the Department of Transportation aren’t moving to do so.

Communities are especially vulnerable to oil-by-rail accidents because they have not been trained to fight crude oil fires and, even if they had been, they don’t have the necessary foam. 

Why Nothing Is Being Done to Improve Oil by Rail Safety

Since the oil train explosion in Lac-Megantic in July of 2013, we have learned that there are some obvious safety issues that need to be addressed regarding transportation of crude oil by rail. The first is that the majority of the rail cars transporting this oil are DOT-111’s which have been deemed unsafe due to their tendency to rupture in accidents. The second is that Bakken crude oil can be explosive and isn’t being properly classified for transport.  

Since Lac-Megantic we have heard many calls for increased rail safety. In August of 2013, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) wrote a letter to the Federal Railway Adminstration (FRA) and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Adminstration (PHMSA) requesting that the agency begin a phase out of the DOT-111 rail cars. Senator Schumer also referenced a March 2012 letter written by National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Deborah Hersman requesting safety upgrades to existing DOT-111 rail cars.

On January 15th, 2014, Representative Corrinne Brown (D-FL) wrote a letter to Jeff Denham (R-CA), who is Chairman of the Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Wastes Congressional Subcommittee, requesting a hearing be held regarding rail safety.  In her letter she mentions that several members of the Subcommittee have already written letters requesting a hearing on rail safety as far back as August 2013.  Brown wrote:

Again, we urge the subcommittee to hold a hearing immediately on rail safety.  We believe the hearing should, at a minimum, include representatives from the NTSB, FRA, PHMSA, the rail industry, and rail labor.  Thank you in advance for consideration of this request.”

Additionally, there are concerned elected officials across the country who have requested action on rail safety. Even Rahm Emanuel, former White House Chief of Staff and current Mayor of Chicago has joined the chorus of people requesting improved rail safety.

Last week, the PHMSA released the first results regarding the testing of Bakken Crude. This testing began in November 2013 and is one of the few changes that have been made since the explosion in Lac-Megantic. The results were not good as over 50% of the samples taken were found to be improperly classified. The offenders paid fines ranging from $12,000 to $51,530.

Beginning in August to Nov. 1, 2013, PHMSA inspectors tested samples from various points along the crude oil transportation chain: from cargo tanks that deliver crude oil to rail loading facilities, from storage tanks at the facilities, and from the pipeline connecting the storage tank to the railcar that would move the crude across the country,” said DOT. “Based on the test results, 11 of the 18 samples taken from cargo tanks delivering crude oil to the rail loading facilities were not assigned to the correct Packing Group.”

So there is ample evidence that the DOT-111 cars are unsafe and prone to spills in crashes and that Bakken Crude is being misclassified by oil companies to make it appear as less of a risk than it actually is to the public. And as trains continued to explode over the past six months, we have had repeated requests by lawmakers to do something about this.

So why has nothing happened?  You probably already know that answer, but here are the details.

Whether By Train Or By Pipeline, Oil and Gas Transport Is Unsafe

The deadly oil train disaster in Lac Megantic, Quebec on July 5, which (as of this writing) has left 33 people dead, with 17 still missing, and contaminated over 60 miles of local drinking water sources, has initiated a curious response across the media spectrum.

Some observers cite this accident as reason to consider pipelines, rather than trains, as the safer choice to transport oil and gas fossil fuels.

Two new major reports, however, reveal that this question misses a much larger point: oil, gas, and coal – the fossil fuel trio – indeed are inherently unsafe industries regardless of the mode of transport.

The first report, from Environment & Energy Publishing (E&E),  an organization which focuses on energy policy and markets, examined on-shore oil and gas and documented over 6,000 spills and accidents at oil and gas sites in 2012 - an average of more than 16 spills a day. A total of 15.6 million gallons of oil, fracking fluid, wastewater and other liquids were reported spilled at production sites during 2012. That's more than the 11 million gallons of oil that leaked from the shattered hull of the Exxon Valdez in 1989.

This represents a significant increase in accidents since 2010 and parallels the dramatic rise in drilling activity across key oil and gas producing states, such as North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Wyoming.  

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