Jet Fuel on Freight Trains: Normal Accidents and the Tragedy of Lac-Mégantic

Condolences

In some ways, speaking of the lessons of a tragedy too soon seems unspeakably rude. Quebec is a tight-knit society. It calls itself a “nation”, and in the sense that it’s a nation it’s a small one. Losing the center of a thriving old town, suddenly, unexpectedly, in a firey catastrophe, this is not the sort of thing that this peaceful backwater civilization is accustomed to. It’s a national tragedy of the first order. I think the first thing to say, even if I expect no one directly affected to read this, is to express profound condolences to the citizens and friends of the town of Lac-Mégantic.

Loss of Place

Some people find it rude to speak of property when there is so much loss of life, but it appears to have been a real gem of a downtown. Losing beautiful and happy places diminishes us as well, perhaps not so tragically and intensely as for those directly involved, but it’s a loss for the culture for whom this place was a nexus of positive focus, of joy, of camaraderie. There is a small direct loss multiplied by millions of people. This is a loss that affects every person who cares about Quebec.

 

Lac-Mégantic_mod

Lac_megantic_burning

Lac-Mégantic, avant et apres

Taking it Personally

The next thing I need to say is that for me, it feels oddly personal.

Canada rarely makes the news. Montreal less so, except as a tourist destination. But my little home suburb on the island of Montreal, usually completely obscure, actually got a mention on the Wikipedia page for the disaster. It was in the Côte St. Luc railyard, in hearing distance of my late father’s condo unit, that the train was handed off from Canadian National to the now infamous Montreal, Maine and Atlantic line.

The idea that many a rolling bomb like this has passed within tens of yards of a bed that I have slept in should not surprise me, I suppose. Many of us live by freight train lines, and it is likely that we take comparable risks without knowing it, without having been consulted, without having a say in the matter. That’s exactly the point that I have been pondering.

I’ve thought about little else in my uncommitted time this week.

Rights of Ownership

I also have to say that I am already astonished at the way that rail freight is handled in North America.

madmap

Map of Madison in 1905; this is now the core of a fairly large city.

The various train tracks, including the S-shaped section on the east which enveloped my house, are commonly used for low value freight.

There are many grade crossings, disrupting traffic and sleep.

While I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, a moribund freight line through central Madison was revived. Anyone familiar with the geography of Madison will realize that this is a ludicrous route; the most populated part of the city lies on a narrow isthmus between two lakes, and has essentially unsolvable traffic problems. Nevertheless, the eastern part of the isthmus contains a looping rail line which carries freight, and its usage was stepped up after I moved into the neighborhood. It crosses over a dozen intersections, and the law is the law – the train had to emit two long honks, a short, and a long before crossing each and every one of them. The result, for those of us finding ourselves near the center of curvature of the loop, was a good hour of continuous honking every time a train came by, which would happen a few times each night.

Now this is not as much a horror as a mushroom cloud, to be sure, but it was a considerable inconvenience.

The rights of way were established long ago, and the rights assigned with them remain with the assignees of the original right holders. This despite the great increase in value of the infrastructure that has been built up around the train lines. These rights, formulated by a governing process and not in any intuitive sense property, nevertheless have legal sway. If you live near a train line, you will have to make a whole lot of trouble to have any influence on how that line is used. (We eventually managed to suppress the horns in the Madison city limits.)

Normal Accidents

31Yh0FlCCYL._

When I first became aware of the tragedy, I immediately thought of Charles Perrow’s amazing book, Normal Accidents, which discusses the nature of high-impact accidents from high-risk technologies. The book is immensely thought-provoking.

Its key point is that disasters do not typically result from a single failure, but from a cascade of failures. Often safety systems are inadequately tested and do not function as expected. Often system operators are confused as to the right behavior. These factors are certainly indicated in the story as it has emerged so far (via Wikipedia):

The MMA freight train departed the CPR yard in Côte Saint-Luc and stopped at Nantes at 23:25 on July 5, 11 kilometres (6.8 mi) west of Lac-Mégantic, for a crew change. The engineer parked the train on the main line by setting the brakes and followed standard procedure by shutting down four of the five locomotives. The engineer did not park the train on the adjacent siding, which has a derail which would have stopped the train from accidentally departing. According to Transport Canada, it is unusual that one leaves an unattended train on the mainline. The engineer left the lead engine, #5017, running to keep air pressure supplied to the air brakes. He then departed for a local hotel, l’Eau Berge in downtown Lac-Mégantic, for the night. While en route to the hotel, the engineer told the taxi driver that he felt unsafe leaving a train running while it was spitting oil and thick, black smoke. He said he wanted to call the US office of the MMA, as they would have the power to give him other directives.

The train travelled 11 kilometres (6.8 mi) downhill from Nantes to Lac-Mégantic.

Witnesses recall having seen the train seemingly unattended and in distress around 22:45 that night. People driving on the road next to the stopped train had to slow down as they passed through a thick dark blue diesel fume cloud and as they watched sparks coming out of a locomotive’s chimney.

The Nantes Fire Department responded to a 911 call from a citizen at 23:32 who witnessed a fire caused by a leaking fuel pipe on the first locomotive. The fire department extinguished the blaze and notified the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway. By 00:13 two MMA track maintenance employees had arrived from Lac-Mégantic; the Nantes firefighters left the scene as the MMA employees confirmed the train was safe. Yves Bourdon, director of the MMA, told CBC that the air brakes of all locomotives and wagons were all activated, as well as hand brakes (mechanical) on 5 locomotives and 10 cars.

The MMA has alleged that the lead locomotive was tampered with; that the diesel engine was shut down, thereby disabling the compressor powering the air brakes which allowed the train to move downhill from Nantes into Lac-Mégantic once the air pressure dropped in the reservoirs on the cars. Teamsters Canada Rail Conference vice-president Doug Finnson disputes this theory, stating that the key braking system on a stopped, unsupervised train are the hand brakes, which are completely independent from the motor-powered compressor that feeds the air brakes.

According to Nantes Fire Chief Patrick Lambert, “We shut down the engine before fighting the fire. Our protocol calls for us to shut down an engine because it is the only way to stop the fuel from circulating into the fire.”.

According to the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB), the railway dispatcher was warned of the train having technical difficulties sufficiently early on the evening of Friday, July 5.

By regulation, “when equipment is left at any point a sufficient number of hand brakes must be applied to prevent it from moving” (per Section 112 of the Canadian Rail Operating Rules) and “the effectiveness of the hand brakes must be tested” before relying on their retarding force. However, there are no rules against leaving a train unlocked, running and unattended, even if it contains dangerous materials and is stopped on a main rail line, on a hill just next to a residential area.

Soon after being left once again unattended, the freight train began moving downhill on its own toward the town. The 72 loaded tank cars detached from the five locomotives and buffer car approximately 800 metres (0.50 mi) from Lac-Mégantic, then entered the town at high speed and derailed on a curve.

There was indeed a cascade of failures – clearly there was some confusion about setting the brakes – apparently the engineer felt disempowered to deal with the situation – clearly the interface between the small town fire department, the engineer (who has not been identified but likely is French-speaking but Montreal-based and not local Update: speculations on engineer wrong on all counts; he is Tom Harding, presumably not from a French-speaking family, who lives in what we “anglos” call the Eastern Townships, i.e., closer to Lac Megantic than Montreal is), and the English-speaking head office in Chicago, (at midnight on a Saturday night!) was not emergency ready. In the end, 72 tank cars of North Dakota light sweet crude headed for an export port in Maine started rolling down the hill toward an unsuspecting Quebec resort town enjoying a summer Saturday night.

It’s also worth noticing how hard the company is working the blame-the-man-on-the-scene angle, which Perrow also describes as common. But of course, it would not have been technically difficult to design a system such that the engine could not be switched off if the passive brakes were disengaged. The real problem is the lack of seriousness of purpose placed by the company on safety issues.

It’s interesting how this turns the Keystone story on its head. The oil was of American origin and headed for export via an American port. What it was doing in Quebec is a question worthy of pondering. Apparently the border which is such a pain in the neck for humans who cross it regularly is utterly porous to commodities.

The Archaism of the Rail Industry in North America

How and why the train actually crossed onto the island of Montreal on its ill fated intended journey from North Dakota to Maine may cause the geographically aware non-Montrealer some confusion. It actually raises some peculiarities of Canadian economic history. Suffice it to say that any traffic between the Atlantic and the Pacific passing through eastern Canada will be peculiarly hard pressed to avoid a series of bridges from the mainland, onto the island, and back to the mainland. It is an odd feature that such a huge, sparsely settled country has a traffic choke point on a heavily populated river island. But it’s a fact. And the fact traces many decades back into the economic history of Canada. It’s clearly not an optimal route, any more than sending interstate freight down the Madison isthmus makes any sense.

GeneseeWyoming

 

Some of the freight lines in Quebec. The pattern is universal. All roads lead to Montreal.

But there it is. For historical reasons and for practical purposes, you can’t take a train across Canada without crossing onto and off an urban island.

This raises the whole question of the archaism of the freight rail network. The whole system was developed over a century ago, and both the legal rights of the track owners and the routes of the tracks were developed at a time when needs were different. For one thing, the trains were carrying coal at worst, not, basically, jet fuel as in this case, nor chlorine nor pesticides nor other potential disaster precursors. For another, tracks did not shift in and out of use, baiting and switching property owners into moving into quiet areas that suddenly become industrialized.

Archaism of Procedures and Standards

APTOPIX Belgium Train Strike

A small corner of the vast Côte St. Luc railyard

We can easily conclude from the evidence at hand that it’s not just the routes but also the procedures of the rail industry that are archaic, indeed stunningly archaic and not fit for purpose. Basically we have a spectacular loss of life and of a historical cultural nexus as a result of a cascade of errors beginning with a small mishap. It is clear that nobody really had any idea, at the time, what the right procedure should be.

Is this any way to run an airline? No, and with this much at stake a train service (or a pipeline service for that matter) should be as tightly regulated as an airline. But they aren’t. And the businesses unregulated in this way will consider the lack of regulation an established right, and will fight tooth and nail to avoid additional regulation. And to be sure, their book value is based on their under-regulated status.

(Anyone who thinks this helps makes a case for pipelines is referred to the citizens of Mayflower, Arkansas, or Kalamazoo, Michigan for their opinions on the matter.)

Does this deny a citizen of Côte St. Luc, Lac-Mégantic, or Madison, (or Mayflower or Kalamazoo for that matter) the right to maintain the safety of their own property? A literal reading of market libertarian doctrine, I think, would say that indeed, you forfeited that right when you bought or leased that property – it is your responsibility to investigate every risk already written into prior arrangements on that turf, to negotiate with the holders of existing rights individually or as a corporate entity of your own, or to live elsewhere.

Charles Perrow Redux

Charles Perrow, author of Normal Accidents, does not concur with this position any more than I do. He dismisses them as follows in an early chapter:

Third-party victims, innocent bystanders, have no such involvement in the system. I have heard some proponents argue, in a conference on establishing safety goals for nuclear power plants, that people can choose not to live near a nuclear power plant (or choose to avoid going to events at a stadium that is in the flightpath of an O’Hare Airport runway). But I think these arguments can be dismissed. Nuclear plants exist near all densely populated areas in the United States; there is simply no practical means to avoid being within 50 miles of one. Even if one could, a severe core meltdown with breach of containment under the proper weather conditions could contaminate areas as large as the whole Northeast. The plutonium that might have crashed on Madagascar during the Apollo 13 emergency re-entry of the atmosphere would have contaminated innocent bystanders in a distant part of the world that one would have thought safe from such high-technology disasters. People are aware of risks associated with flying; but I suspect that most people living downstream from large dams do not realize the dam is near enough to endanger their lives in the case of a failure.

His concluding chapter (I have the 1984 edition) expands on this idea at length and I won’t go into it much further at present. I highly recommend Perrow’s book to anyone concerned about dangerous technologies.

But the import of the opening salvo is clear. It’s not only the owners of the industrial infrastructure that have rights conveyed by ancient agreements. Corporations are quick to see and establish externalities, ways in which they can offload risk and loss to their neighbors, their society, and even other countries and other generations.

Those of us in the world the corporations are creating may not be quick to defend our own stakes because we don’t see them being encroached upon, sometimes not until it is too late. But that doesn’t mean we have no rights.

 

Update

Phil Mattera makes a shorter version of the same argument at DeSmog. I agree 100% with his conclusion:

Yet some observers are seeking to exploit the deaths in Quebec by making the bizarre argument that the real lesson of the accident is the need to rely more on pipelines rather than railroads to carry the crude oil gushing out of the North Dakota Bakken fields (the content of the MMA tankers) and the tar sands of Canada. North Dakota Senator John Hoeven, for instance, is using the incident to argue the need for the controversial XL Pipeline.

How quickly these people forget that the safety record of pipelines is far from unblemished. Hoeven’s neighbors in Montana are still recovering from the 2011 rupture of an Exxon Mobil pipeline that spilled some 40,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River.

The problem is not the particular delivery system by which hazardous substances are transported but the fact that too many of those systems are under the control of executives such as Burkhardt who put their profits before the safety of the public.

Comments:

  1. Apparently this wasn't just light sweet crude, which would not be explosive (although would burn if spilled and ignited), but included volatile fracking chemicals that rendered it so. Dilbit from Alberta would have similar properties.

    The northern routing through Montreal isn't a big surprise, as the alternative would have been to bring it across a much longer route passing through Chicago (and maybe Madison?). IIRC the fallback pipeline that would be used for the tarsands dilbit if KXL fails to be approved has similar cross-border routing, although I suppose there's no reason to expect that Obama would approve it if he's already disapproved KXL.

    I happened to see the video of the initial interview with the fire chief, who spent the bulk of his time on camera regretting the loss of the town library for the local history it contained.

    • Fracking fluid would not make light crude more explosive, I don't think. Oil tankers in fires are explosive - this is not an unprecedented phenomenon. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sl-JgyQA7u0

  2. The capricious nature of official concerns about terrorism has jumped out at me in the past when I saw graffiti on LPG tanker cars rolling through Cobourg.

    The "after" photo shows that despite careless references to a train "exploding", nothing blew up here. It was a spill and fire, and where the fire didn't reach, fragile houses stand. When 50-70 tonnes of a volatile hydrocarbon liquid burst out of a pressure car, houses a mile away collapse, or even further in the Nishapur case (although those houses may not have been wood-framed).

    • Not sure what you mean about terrorism. You're saying that kids with spray cans can get access to tank cars, I guess? Hence looking for shoe bombers at airports is incoherent? Fair enough.

      About the explosion thing. There were reports about several explosions, and clearly the total devastation of the nightclub indicates a sudden event.

      There is evidence that the train was afire while rolling down the track. Thus, some tanks were arguably ready to fail from the impact.

      Did you see the satellite image? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lac-Megantic_derailment_from_space.jpg

      This was an extremely high energy event, where the light from the fire was comparable to that from a large city. Why the damage was so localized is something people are scratching their heads about. But I'm inclined to believe the reports about "explosions" nonetheless.

      • Possibly the explosion was so hot that the buoyancy drove the air upwards. I speculate this updraft may have been severe enough that the fire did not affect the neighborhood beyond the immediate area of the crash. The peculiar "many deaths, few injuries" phenomenon would fit into this hypothesis.

      • It did rain in Megantic immediately after the accident which supports the idea of a very strong updraft and pyrocumulus rain.

      • Now that's an interesting sidelight. This is the same image, but I like to go to Earth Observatory every day to see what's availability from the POV of satellites and those who present and choose their images. They also include an "image comparison" facility. It's a good occasion for a reality check.
        http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=81581

        Here also from there is a nighttime view of Dakota oil fields
        http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/NaturalHazards/view.php?id=79810

        and for good measure, night lights everywhere on earth
        http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/NaturalHazards/view.php?id=79765

        But back to topic, I found this argument convincing, and this oilman is not a guy I approve of, having assessed him as a possible rare paid denier with real weight in discussions.

        On Google, I looked at all the pictures I could find of the wrecked rail cars at Lac-Magentic.

        Many of the tank cars were mangled, deformed, beaten out of shape like old used beer cans. One or two of them were ruptured along their longitudinal axes, where they had buckled when crushed by the wreck.

        But none of them that I could see showed signs of an internal explosion.

        A cylindrical tank destroyed by an internal explosion either peels back in petals, like an exploding cigar, if the steel is ductile, or it shatters into fragments if the steel is brittle. Steel good enough to handle Canadian winters should be quite ductile, so I would expect the former rather than the latter.

        But I'm not seeing it in the available pictures.

        This would suggest that Mr. Arydberg's original comment is probably correct. There appears to be no explosion as such. Rather, there was a tremendous release of mechanical energy from the train wreck, followed by a massive spill of, and a horrible fire-ball of, ignited hydrocarbons.

        I cannot see all the tanks cars in the available news photos. There may be some out of these views, which show a different failure mechanism.

        But my first impression is that this was not an explosion but rather a holocaust.

        No comfort to the families of the victims, unfortunately.

        Dale R. McIntyre, PhD

        -------------------------
        Last but not least, a passionate statement which which I wholeheartedly agree from an all-time favorite colleague Chris Yuan, who can be found in the same DotEarth discussion.

        "Lac M, like Livingstone Louisiana 1982,, will be made whole to the extent n of human law. There is no human court that can make us whole for our deeply flawed understanding of Mother Earth and our responsibility for ignoring her laws.

        "No human court can reverse the laws of Mother Earth, no human judge can stay sea level rise, no talk show host can dismiss the melting ice, no troll can confuse Mother Nature. Mother Earth does not care about responsibility."

    • G.R.L. Cowan>despite careless references to a train “exploding”, nothing blew up here.
      July 12, 2013 at 5:31 am

      This falsehood is offensive when proof has been available for days before this post.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JtZj8YMAeMQ
      by: Jailasolutionnnn
      explosion at 0:17 (and runs for his life)
      Published on Jul 6, 2013

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mRb3JHsiqfA
      by: Adrien Aubert
      explosions at 0:46, 3:52 (language warning)
      Published on Jul 7, 2013

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zslOC_uW3H4
      by: Francois Rodrigue
      explosion at 0:30
      Published on Jul 6, 2013

      • I think the point is that there was no explosive failure of the tanks themselves, which would have been even worse. Of this I am now convinced.

        The energy in the train cargo was, by computations I have done and seen, somewhere between two and five times the energy of the Hiroshima bomb.

        Had it been released instantaneously, the entire town would have been destroyed, not just the downtown. It is hard to believe that it could have been worse. But Cowan's point is that it could conceivably have been much worse.

        The tanks do have some sort of overpressure valve, I think, so at least one safety system may have contributed to the result not being even worse than it was.

  3. Apparently the mayors of Canadian cities agree with my conclusion regarding this event.

    Postmedia News:

    "The frustration surfaced weeks before the Lac-Mégantic disaster, when six tanker cars bearing oil products were left teetering on a damaged rail bridge during Calgary's flooding in late June.

    "How is it we don't have regulatory authority over (the condition of the bridge), but it's my guys down there risking their lives?" Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said, blasting Canadian Pacific Railway.

    Unlike other private businesses, train companies are exempt from municipal regulations, he said.

    Railways are responsible for their own inspections, and are not obliged to tell Canadian municipalities what type of hazardous materials and how much of them - be it oil, ethanol, sulphuric acid or propane, for example - are being shipped.

    How does this work in other countries?

  4. It's become clear the cars did not explode, but rather crash and leak and burn. The presence of sulfuric acid has been mentioned (source: DotEarth comment section where there was extensive and sometimes skilled discussion).

    I am grieved that this is being used as an excuse to promote pipelines and the continued malarkey about extreme fuels "solving" our problems (though I admit they are sadly necessary in the short term).

    This article (h/t Richard Pauli) say it well (the Guardian often does) though it misses the relatively minor point above.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/true-north/2013/jul/11/1

    "Quebec's Lac-Mégantic oil train disaster not just tragedy, but corporate crime
    "At the root of the explosion is deregulation and an energy rush driving companies to take ever greater risks"

    .... it's part of a boom in dirty, unconventional energy, as fossil fuel companies seek to supplant the depletion of easy oil and gas with new sources – sources that are harder to find, nastier to extract, and more complicated to ship.

    The crude carried on the rail-line of US-based company Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway – "fracked" shale oil from North Dakota – would not have passed through Lac-Mégantic five years ago. That's because it's part of a boom in dirty, unconventional energy, as fossil fuel companies seek to supplant the depletion of easy oil and gas with new sources – sources that are harder to find, nastier to extract, and more complicated to ship.

    Like the Alberta tar sands, or the shale deposits of the United States, these energy sources are so destructive and carbon-intensive that leading scientists have made a straightforward judgment: to avert runaway climate change, they need to be kept in the ground. It's a sad irony that Quebec is one of the few places to currently ban the "fracking" used to extract the Dakotan oil that devastated Lac-Mégantic.

    But fossil fuel companies, spurred by record profits, have deployed a full-spectrum strategy to exploit and carry this oil to market. That's one of the reasons for a massive, reckless increase in the amount of oil shipped by rail. In 2009, companies shipped a mere 500 carloads of crude oil by rail in Canada; this year, it will be 140,000.

    Oil-by-rail has also proved a form of insurance against companies' worst nightmare: a burgeoning, continent-wide movement to block pipelines from the Alberta tar sands. A group of Canadian businessmen is pursuing the construction of a 2,400-kilometre rail line that could ship 5m barrels of tar sands oil from Alberta to Alaska. Companies are also trucking it and entertaining the idea of barging it down waterways. This is the creed of the new energy era: by any means necessary.

    The recklessness of these corporations is no accident. Under the reign of neoliberalism over the last 30 years, governments in Canada and elsewhere have freed them from environmental, labour and safety standards and oversight, while opening up increasingly more of the public sphere for private profit-seeking.

    ...."

    • Susan, this is all quite secondary to the point which I think is central here.

      I would suggest that 1) it is the shabby operation of the rail industry in general, and the MMA in particular, which has enabled this disaster. 2) the fossil fuel industry here is involved only as a customer seeking the besy price for a service. Of course, the company that is bets at outsourcing risk is in a good competitive bidding position, but it is the railroad, not the refinery nor the mining operation, that has destroyed Lac Megantic.

      The focus on the energy sector seems to show that we are habituated in our conversation patterns.

      Of the Dot Earth commenters, the only one that seemed to me to get it was Geoffrey Rogg:

      Ax grinders give us a break (no pun intended). This is an accident that should never have happened if normal safety procedures had been followed.

      Unfortunately it was oil in the tanks but it could have been any one of a number of bulk material shipments but not matter the freight it was totally avoidable.

      So don't jump on the bandwagon like a bunch of sheep by saying such daft things like it is our appetite for carbon fuels that caused this accident.

      Harsher than I'd put it but the point is right; the energy sector is not at the center of this disaster and discussing energy strategy is secondary to dealing with it! As a followup poster replied and as I already mentioned above, it could have been chlorine or ammonia or any of a number of bulk hazardous materials that trains haul around with comparable abandon.

      The question is, how did us ordinary people living in ordinary places stop being stakeholders in what happens in those places? How did deregulation go from being an arguably defensible corrective to an ethical goal in itself? Why does it feel radical to suggest that train safety is a public interest and train cargo is legitimate public data? How did we end up in a world where to question the absolute property rights of the railroad feels radical again, as if we were back in 1850?

      In this case it's the transportation sector, not the energy sector, though admittedly it is energy demand that is pushing it all.

      But the idea that the ONLY way we affect these systems is via "demand" for commodities, and that our desire for peace and safety is, since it doesn't directly convert to money, somehow inferior and negligible, is pervasive in the conversation. We can always vote with our wallets, but if we vote ONLY with our wallets, well, this is what we get. It's a profound injustice we have perpetrated on Lac Megantic, not only by expressing our market demands, but also by failing to express our legitimate, shared, ethical and environmental concerns through the mechanisms of democracy.

      • Not all or only ... I though we were acquainted.

        I failed to say earlier I enjoyed your thoughtful and heartfelt article.

        That said, the pointed use of that comment is a surprising rush to judgment. I would never say it was "our appetite that caused the accident." It was intended to create prejudice; I'm used to it but didn't expect to find you in the hunt. The contingent that studies the cleverest putdowns had a success with you here; they're very good at it.

        My point is closer to that of the Guardian author and includes yours. The rush to profit, getting rid of regulation and putting safety procedures out of sight and mind multiplies these dangers (I come across examples almost every day).

        However, I do seem to have undermined my own point by not proofreading carefully and noticing I repeated the opening paragraph which overemphasized the point - intended to start midway in.

        You put it well here:

        The question is, how did us ordinary people living in ordinary places stop being stakeholders in what happens in those places? How did deregulation go from being an arguably defensible corrective to an ethical goal in itself? Why does it feel radical to suggest that train safety is a public interest and train cargo is legitimate public data? How did we end up in a world where to question the absolute property rights of the railroad feels radical again, as if we were back in 1850?

        Nonetheless, there is no question that this incident is being used as a weapon by pro-pipeline advocates and their press stenographers and that is more out of line than reminding people that big fossil's ways with money and influence are part of the problem. The all-out campaign against any progress in developing, storing, and distributing clean energy, despite industry progress, has recently ramped up. Positive news about new developments in energy, like Obama's efforts, are being buried by a determined campaign.

        I don't like bullies.

  5. Bullies and other ideologues, on the other hand are happy to be right or even half right when it suits their purposes. (They have a better batting average than the obfuscators.)

    I have no knowledge or experience of Rogg and express no opinion on anything else he says. He does strike me as rude here. But here he is saying here that the Lac Megantic incident is really not primariy about pipelines vs trains, and on that we agree.

    • I don't disagree with commenter Rogg (or you) about the trainwreck. There's been informed discussion of the immediate cause and how things got so sloppy. In addition to the tearing of my heartstrings, I was very cross about the shortage of American coverage in the early days (obsessed with that plane crash) and there was a lot of discussion about it if one hunted for it so I gave it some time. (Stories of toxicity and disease amongst the poor living and dying of powerlessness everywhere rarely get much air time. On the day of the Virginia Tech massacre 243 people were killed in Baghdad and nobody noticed. Those lives are less valuable, you see.)

      Being in the crosshairs may perhaps have made me a little overready to find tactics that create prejudice, but that's the way it looked to me. The pervasive obfuscation accompanied by overt and covert character assassination current in any location that tolerates it is bullying, and very effective. It undermines those votes you think might help by rationalizing untruth.

      • As soemething of an aside I should note in this context that Quebec is very much part of the "first world" if we can still use such a concept, notwithstanding Prof Rosling.

        It's certainly not poor, nor, despite its protestations, lacking in influence. Indeed, from all signs I've seen in my reading so far, Megantic was a rather prosperous town.

        http://journalmetrocom.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/lac-mc3a9gantic-avant-claude-grenier.png?w=612&h=406&crop=1

        In my opinion, and present company among many exceptions, the parochial myopia of the American press is a reflection of the parochial myopia of its people. This disaster happened eight miles outside the USA, so rich or poor it just doesn't count. This invisibility has been a mixed blessing for Canada, but not without its benefits.

        It's interesting that Canadian companies drop the Canada hints from their names when they make it big, just as Canadian actors and singers tone down the Canadian vowels. Northern Telecom becomes Nortel, Toronto Dominion Bank becomes TD, etc. Mere coincidence I suppose.

      • I looked at the CBC front page sometime around 6:00 PM the day of the disaster (plenty of time for the scope of the disaster to have become clear) and the big attention was to SFO. The following day that was reversed, but still. My conclusion was that far more journalists have flown through SFO than visited Lac Megantic.

        Re the character of the fire, I was relying on a secondary source which I probably should have questioned more. OTOH there do seem to have been some explosions mixed in to the video I saw. Maybe those were gas tanks instead, and I should learn more about the nature of the fracking chemicals in the crude (is that even public?), but pending more information I'll stand on my point that the conflagration seemed too energetic for crude ordinaire to have been the sole agent.

      • Fuel is intended to contain energy. Fracking additives have other purposes. So it seems unlikely on its face that the additives made matters worse.

        Even if they did somehow add energy to the mix, the percentage by weight is small.

        The issue with the additives is what they do to the water that fractures the ground, not what they do to the fuel that comes up, as I understand it.

        I've been wrong before, obviously, but I don't think that adds up.

  6. MT quotes DotEarth commenter Geoffrey Rogg:

    So don’t jump on the bandwagon like a bunch of sheep by saying such daft things like it is our appetite for carbon fuels that caused this accident.

    I don't see how our appetite for carbon fuels can not be a cause of the accident. One can speak of multiple proximate and ultimate causes, but surely the risk of this happening was partially a function of the volume of liquid fuels moving around on trains; a similar risk assessment can be done for pipelines.

    WRT to trains vs. pipelines: according to this column on CNBC, "[The Association of American Railroads] estimates railroads spill just 0.38 gallons for every million barrel-miles of crude moved, compared with an estimated spill rate of 0.88 gallons on the pipeline network." Computation of risk per barrel-mile can be done using numbers like those, together with actuarial data.

    As a society, we manage risk by the numbers. It's self-evident that the fewer barrel-miles liquid fuels travel over any transport mode, the less risk they will pose. Yes, "it could have been chlorine or ammonia or any of a number of bulk hazardous materials that trains haul around with comparable abandon", but numerically the risks posed by those commodities is independent of that posed by liquid fuels. A market for liquid fuels will persist, whether from renewable or fossil sources, but wouldn't we expect that a global transition to renewable energy would reduce the risk of this kind of accident substantially?

    • OK, fair enough. But the point is, who determines what dangerous things get done where?

      At some scale, things should be considered illegal until proven legal.

      Of course, it turns out that the railroad had to acquire and did acquire two permits, one each in Maine and in Quebec, to run this train with only one employee on board. (I haven't heard about New Brunswick.)

      To me this is only secondarily a story about energy. It is primarily a story about the legal and ethical burden of proof regarding ANY high risk activities, energy sector or otherwise.

      • I agree that a primary proximate cause of this horrific disaster was negligence, or at best a casual attitude towards the risks, on the part of the railroad. But consider the economic background against which it occurred: the money to be made transporting liquid fuels from their sources to their sinks. The sources are fossil fuel deposits, which are geographically restricted; the sinks are the geographically ubiquitous machines that burn them. You can't move the sources closer to the sinks, so you have to move the volatile, flammable fuels themselves. The situation lends itself to concentration of political/legal power in the hands of the producers and transporters, who profit by socializing risk.

        Production of liquid biofuels, OTOH, need not be geographically restricted. Feedstocks can be grown wherever there's land available, converted to alcohol or biodiesel nearby and on a smaller scale than petroleum refining, and transported over shorter average distances to consumers. Dispersed production means fewer barrel-miles, and also conduces to a more equitable balance of power between the producers and transporters and the communities exposed to the risks. I'm not saying the risks per barrel-mile to innocent third parties will necessarily be reduced by the transistion to renewable fuels, but the opportunity to alter the existing power dynamic is there.

        No wonder the fossil-fuel industry is fighting the transition so desperately.

      • My understanding is that there isn't enough potential biofuel to achieve the transition you are suggesting. Further, there is the small matter of producing enough food, which competes with biofuel.

        Possibly GMO algae farms will someday manage the task. But I imagine that isn't the green revolution you are suggesting.

        At present, greens are celebrating a victory AGAINST wood-fired energy generators.

      • My understanding is that there isn’t enough potential biofuel to achieve the transition you are suggesting. Further, there is the small matter of producing enough food, which competes with biofuel.

        Possibly GMO algae farms will someday manage the task. But I imagine that isn’t the green revolution you are suggesting.

        Yes, these are known hurdles, but I presume it's understood the transition must eventually take place. Surely you're not saying we're stuck with fossil fuels, and all the costs associated with them, forever?

        At present, greens are celebrating a victory AGAINST wood-fired energy generators.

        That's a good enough reason not to call oneself a "green".

      • I think something will emerge eventually; my Buckminster-Fuller hippie-romantic vision (wind turbines everywhere, low energy, energy storage, highly distributed) will probably not be fully realized but it's the best direction to go. I doubt we can take it far enough so likely and (hopefully) something currently considered exotic/speculative will be in the mix. In the worst case, conventional nukes and lots of serious safety and security issues along with that. (Interesting that pro-nuke opinions tend to skew right because it seems to me that nuclear technology pulls for tight state control.)

        You cannot support the present population on biofuels, period. I am much more interested in biological processes as part of a massive soil restoration biosequestration process. But for the same reasons, it is not going to be fast enough to solve our crisis on the time scale we need. There are only so many plants you can grow. We burn fuel at a rate comparable to the rate which nature grows plants. If you are hoping for a pure biofuel solution you probably haven;t done the numbers. If you've done the numbers I'd like to see them.

      • If you are hoping for a pure biofuel solution you probably haven;t done the numbers.

        Hmm, apparently I don't write as clearly as I thought I did 8^}. I'm not proposing a pure biofuel solution. I'm suggesting that our appetite for energy, together with the geographic distribution of fossil fuels, has shaped the political and legal environment in which FF producers and transporters can get away with socializing risk. I'm suggesting that the transition to renewables may shift the political power dynamic, enough for communities like Lac-Megantic to force liquid fuel transporters to internalize more of the risk.

        I chose liquid biofuels as an example of how dispersing the sources closer to the sinks could help reduce risk to innocent third parties both directly and indirectly: directly by reducing the barrel-miles that volatile, flammable liquid fuels travel; and indirectly by reducing the concentration of capital in the hands of a few producers and transporters, thus reducing their ability to socialize risk.

        I'm not saying any of this will happen, I'm saying we can expect that switching to renewable energy will have ramifying economic and political consequences.

  7. "The Pilgrim's Progress"
    -- by Horatio Algeranon

    "A pipeline's simply safer"
    They claimed aft rail disaster
    "And safest passage of them all:
    By Mayflower. Also faster."

  8. Thomas Homer-Dixon argues that with the scale of the rail operation revealed, pipelines are under more pressure to take the load, which in turn makes it harder for KXL to meet Obama's criterion.

    I don't buy it, myself. I think Obama's decision will be purely political and I'm not sure politics really works that way.

  9. "Tombstone"
    -- by Horatio Algeranon

    While some folks argued "Rail is good"
    And others "Pipe is better"
    It never was quite understood
    That "Either makes us deader".

  10. h/t Tenney Naumer, a superb read, terrific research, great illustrations:

    http://www.resilience.org/stories/2013-07-16/the-high-cost-of-railroading-unconventional-crude

    (apologies for duplicate; posted elsewhere in error)

  11. The same Harper Conservative-run government that has cut environmental assessments and regulation has also made cuts to regulation in other areas of government. It's part of their stupid ideology which gives us deaths by tainted water & tainted meat, environmental disasters, etc. The investigation will take a long time, but it is very easy to assume that government cuts played a part.

    There is a report that the MMA railway had special permission from gov't to run trains with just one employee. The CEO I think seemed to imply that it would be safer to have one than two because two would distract each other (passion in the engineer's space?)

    One journalist complained that for quite a while they were allowing politicians to visit the disaster area, but not reporters, perhaps because they did not want reports or photos of all the spilled oil.

    God knows how the disaster workers will be affected by the toxins: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/story/2013/07/18/quebec-lac-megantic-firefighter-tearful-story.html

  12. R.Roper writes,

    G.R.L. Cowan>despite careless references to a train “exploding”, nothing blew up here.
    July 12, 2013 at 5:31 am

    This falsehood is offensive when proof has been available for days before this post.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JtZj8YMAeMQ
    by: Jailasolutionnnn
    explosion at 0:17 (and runs for his life)

    Good point: the linked video does seem to include one tank car bursting and producing an explosive-ish surge of burning. Had it been a shock-wave-producing explosion, however, running for one's life afterwards would be like running from a camera flash afterwards. Only for British secret agents are deadly explosions protracted over a minute-or-two interval.

    Another good before-and-after view.

    Michael Tobis writes,

    Had it been released instantaneously, the entire town would have been destroyed, not just the downtown. It is hard to believe that it could have been worse. But Cowan’s point is that it could conceivably have been much worse.

    Not just could conceivably have been, but in repeated experience has been. A few years ago the net briefly remembered and then reforgot ancient American tank car blasts that blew away a nearby house and broke windows miles away but didn't kill anyone. The Wayback machine has it: sacbee.com/static/archive/ourtown/history/railbombs.html.

    And in 2004, but in a place to which the net pays little attention, a railcar Chernobyl with the same radius of window breakage as the Roseville event.

  13. This has reared up its ugly head again. Gossip that the State Department is getting ready to approval Keystone XL and looking at train transport. DeSmog Canada has an item:

    http://www.desmog.ca/2013/10/29/us-state-department-considers-rail-transport-crude-keystone-xl-decision

    A decision on the proposed northern half of the Keystone XL pipeline - under review since 2008 - hinges on a final environmental review by the State Department now taking into consideration the importance oil-by-rail transport might have on growth of Alberta's tar sands.

    US officials are evaluating the impact Keystone XL will have on expansion of the tar sands and whether or not the pipeline will worsen climate change. According to a new report by Reuters the evaluation has created a balancing test, “zeroing in on the question of whether shipment by rail is a viable alternative to the controversial project.”

    The test's crux: “if there is enough evidence that the oil sands region will quickly grow with our without the 1,200-mile line, that would undercut an argument from environmentalists that the pipeline would turbocharge expansion,” Reuters reports.

    .... the high costs associated with rail and the dangers associated with oil-by-rail transport suggest there are real limitations to a full-scale tar sands-by-rail revolution.

    As Reuters reports, even rail operators admit tanker trains can supplement but not substitute the movement of crude by pipeline.

    “We can move large volumes, but it will always be a niche service,”

    Another bit of gossip is that the Lac Megantic crash might have been a bit of industrial sabotage gone wrong. I don't believe it, but the result was to give more power to the powerful (personal source):

    if in all likelihood it was just a terrible coincidence, the fact remains that the disaster led to MMA's bankruptcy and its acquisition by Irving Oil, one of the most powerful players in Canadian and North American politics and energy games. Cianbro needs land acquisitions and rights of way across central Maine to make the East West Corridor happen as a mainly private land grab and tool for resource extraction, and this was a big piece to that puzzle.


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