Railway safety experts experts say railway hazmat risks are still "too high" - 10 years after the Lac-Mégantic disaster
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Canadian railway safety experts are claiming safety has not improved much since the fateful day o when 47 people died in a crude oil explosion following a train derailment in Lac-Mégantic on July 6, 2013.
(This article has undergone several updates, the latest being July 5)
Lac-Mégantic was once a small but very lively town in the French speaking Canadian province of Quebec. One fateful hot summer night in July 2013, a train carrying crude oil derailed exploded and killed 47 people - a disaster which changed everything for the town and the survivors of the disaster.
The Lac-Mégantic rail disaster occurred in the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Canada, on July 6, 2013, at approximately 01:15 a.m. EDT, when an unattended 73-car Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA) freight train carrying Bakken Formation crude oil rolled down a 1.2% grade from Nantes and derailed in downtown Lac-Mégantic, resulting in the explosion and fire of multiple tank cars.
47 people were killed and more than 30 buildings were destroyed in Lac-Mégantic's town centre - roughly half of the downtown area. (Facts from Wikipedia)
Overheated wheel bearing the cause of a huge HazMat accident on February 3, 2023:
For many residents who were affected by the 2013 derailment in Lac-Mégantic, the February 3rd derailment in East Palestine, Ohio - when toxic chemicals were released to relieve pressure - was a stark reminder that despite lessons learned from the disaster in their town, derailments with hazardous materials continue to occur.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board chair Jennifer Homendy confirmed the cause of the Ohio crash was an overheated wheel bearing. Track sensors allegedly caught the issues too late - crew members, according to Homendy, couldn't slow down the train in time to stop the derailment. (as reported by the CBC.ca on February 28, 2023)
The incident in East Palestine led to the release of hazardous material from up to 11 railway cars, including a controversial "vent and burn" of vinyl chloride, in order to release pressure - and explosion risk - in the rail tanker cars.
U.S. safety officials have been demanding to know why these safety checks failed, leading to the recent June 2023 hearings with the train company Norfolk, which CTIF.org has previously reported on.
Canadian railway safety expert: Risks are still too high for more disastrous train derailments - even in major cities
Similar questions have been asked before in Canada and federal authorities have introduced several changes after the Lac-Mégantic derailment.
Rail safety consultant Ian Naish, former director of rail accident investigations with the Transportation Safety Board, says to the CBD that Lac-Mégantic was the deadliest train incident in 150 years of Canadian history.
"Still", he says, "the safety measures introduced since the disaster have been "marginal."
This is also backed up by Bruce Campbell, an adjunct professor in environmental studies at York University in Toronto, who wrote the book The Lac-Mégantic Rail Disaster: Public Betrayal, Justice Denied.
"The window [is] still open for a Lac-Mégantic kind of disaster... People living close to the rail tracks — whether it's in Lac-Mégantic or whether it's in the heart of Toronto or Vancouver — are still at risk," he said.
Despite repeated calls for a special inquiry after the 2013 tragedy, none, according to Campbell, was ever held.
Accident investigators allegedly attributed the disaster to several causes, the most significant being the result of leaving a train unattended on a main line, a failure to set enough hand brakes and not having a backup safety mechanism.
In their 2022 report, Canada's Transportation Safety board found safety practices lacking and at the Montreal, Main and Atlantic, which is the same regional railway that ran the train that crashed in Quebec. They also found that employees were commonly worked to exhaustion.
10 years after, residents are still deeply affected and the economy is still down
For the 10th Anniversary of this tragic disaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC.ca) visited Lac-Mégantic and talked to residents there.
Still ten years after, the scars are deep and the economy of this once lively town has not recovered.
"It's kind of a desert compared with what it was before," said Gilbert Carette, a local who have seen the town before and after the explosion.
"There were 100 buildings here before. Now you [can] count them", he says to CBC.ca.
Wikipedia has an extensive summary of the incident which is worth reading in full for those interested ina detailed description of the fire service operations:
"Around 150 firefighters were deployed to the scene, described as looking like a "war zone".Some were called in from as far away as the city of Sherbrooke, Quebec, and as many as eight trucks carrying 30 firefighters were dispatched from Franklin County, Maine, United States. (Chesterville, Eustis, Farmington, New Vineyard, Phillips, Rangeley and Strong)....
....The fire was contained and prevented from spreading further in the early afternoon. However, the burning crude oil was notoriously difficult to extinguish...
...After 20 hours, the centre of the fire was still inaccessible to firefighters and five pools of fuel were still burning. A special fire-retardant foam was brought from an Ultramar refinery in Lévis, aiding progress by firefighters on Saturday night. Five of the unexploded cars were doused with high-pressure water to prevent further explosions, and two were still burning and at risk of exploding 36 hours later...."
Photo Credit: Police helicopter view of Lac-Mégantic, the day of the derailment, July 6, 2013.
By Sûreté du Québec - https://twitter.com/sureteduquebec/status/353519189769732096/photo/1, CC BY-SA 1.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27152159