3 Reasons the Deadly Lac-Mégantic Oil Train Disaster Could Happen Again
By Justin Mikulka
In the five years since the oil train disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, claimed 47 lives, the world has learned much about the risks that hauling oil by rail poses. One of the clearest lessons is how little has been done to address those risks, which means that deadly event could easily happen again.
To mark the anniversary, Kathleen Fox, chair of the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) of Canada, released a statement on oil-by-rail. "Much has been accomplished in the intervening years, but more remains to be done," she said.
Fox is correct about one thing: More remains to be done. Much more.
Here are three main reasons history may yet repeat itself.
[Read this explainer for background on what unfolded during the fiery early morning hours of July 6, 2013 in Lac-Mégantic.]
Reason #1: Inadequate Safety Regulations
The Bakken shale oil carried on the runaway train that decimated the small Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic is a very light and highly volatile crude oil that ignites easily. Despite many calls for regulations in the U.S. to make that oil safer via a process known as stabilization—including from Obama's Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, the issue of stabilizing oil volatility on trains remains unaddressed on either side of the border.
Similar concerns are arising for trains shipping oil from Alberta (home of the tar sands) after multiple derailed trains have resulted in fires and explosions reminiscent of those involving Bakken oil.
Another apparent safety gap in regulations involves the outdated brake systems on oil trains, which is the case in both the U.S. and Canada. Rail experts have testified repeatedly that modern electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes would be a huge improvement over the current air braking system that was considered revolutionary in the 19th century. When the U.S. Department of Transportation released an overhaul of rules governing oil trains in 2015, ECP brakes were among the requirements. However, that measure was repealed in late 2017 due to intense industry pressure.
An important point to keep in mind here is that all of the major oil-by-rail carriers (BNSF, CSX, CN, CP) move oil from both the U.S. and Canada, which leads to something known as harmonization in the regulations. Because the trains couldn't easily cross the border if the rules were different in each country, the regulatory agencies in both must work together to ensure harmonization.
Canada's TSB Chair Fox noted in her recent remarks that the DOT-111 tank cars, which were carrying the oil that destroyed part of Lac-Mégantic are no longer permitted to move crude oil, in either Canada or the U.S. Those tank cars clearly were unsafe for transporting flammable liquids—something they were never designed to do.
However, Fox also noted that rail companies have until 2025 to phase in the new rail tank cars that will replace DOT-111s, and progress on that transition has been slow. The 2015 oil train rules mandate stricter standards for rail tank cars carrying hazardous materials, which means rail companies have a decade to switch to new DOT-117 cars. Yet Fox does not address the real issue at play with tank cars.
The real problem is that DOT-117 tank cars are also proving inadequate for moving oil safely, as evidenced when an oil train of cars meeting the new standards derailed in Iowa in June 2018. Many of the cars ruptured, resulting in a spill of 230,000 gallons of oil into a flooded Iowa river. These new DOT-117 tank cars don't appear to offer any real safety benefits over the older cars. They may look nicer with the new paint and lack of grafitti, but that seems to be the only demonstrable improvement.
DOT-117 tank cars, the new rail cars that are slowly replacing the DOT-111 cars carrying oil. Justin Mikulka
Another gap involves an automatic braking technology known as positive train control (PTC), which was first recommended in 1970. The rail industry resisted moving forward with PTC for almost 40 years until 2008 when Congress mandated that rail companies install PTC on all trains, passenger and freight, by 2015. Despite the congressional mandate, the industry refused to cooperate.
Instead, the rail industry threatened to shut down the U.S. economy if required to fulfill the legislative requirement. In response, Congress granted the industry a three year extension. As the third year of that extension winds down, the largest oil-by-rail company, BNSF, has asked for another two year extension.
Why would rail companies refuse to implement this well-known safety technology that reportedly could have saved nearly 300 lives between 1969 and 2015? Because it costs money to implement and it only costs a fraction of that money to hire lobbyists to fight the regulations.
That priority was starkly revealed in a 2015 story by The Intercept, which reports that during a 2009 investor call, a Wall Street analyst told rail executives they need to do more to "further educate" Congress about why the PTC mandate was unacceptable.
That exchange occurred six years before the industry was required to implement PTC, giving rail companies plenty of time to hire lobbyists to argue against implementing a safety technology now almost 50 years after it was first recommended.
Yet another example of a regulatory gap in rail safety measures stretches back to Lac-Mégantic, which involved a runaway train parked on a hill above the town. Corporate cost cutting and a lack of rules to prevent runaway trains helped lead to the 47 lives lost in that town. In her statement reflecting on the five years since the disaster, TSB Chair Fox mentions that "the issue of additional physical defenses, which the TSB has called for to help prevent uncontrolled movements, has yet to be sufficiently addressed."
"Additional physical defenses" are ramps or locks placed in front of a train to prevent it from running away in the event something else goes wrong. A simple and proven solution. But starting and stopping trains with these safety devices in place takes longer, and because time is money in the rail industry, companies generally don't use them.
Despite being one of the easiest problems to solve, runaway trains, or "uncontrolled movements," are increasing since Lac-Mégantic. CBC News reported that Faye Ackerman, a TSB board member, noted the situation is getting worse. "… in the last five years, the number of these uncontrolled movements has been on the rise," Ackerman said.
In June 2017, an event eerily similar to Lac-Mégantic (minus the explosion and fatalities) unfolded when a 72 car train was not properly braked and ran away for "five kilometres onto a busy track just north of Toronto."
There are many factors that could eliminate runaway trains. The train in Lac-Mégantic had back-up braking systems, but no rules require their use and the company policy was to not use them. In addition, positive train control could also prevent runaway trains, and modern ECP brakes would also help. But the simplest solution would be the "additional physical defenses" that Fox referred to.
Reason #2: Oil Trains Derail More Often
Another lesson revealed in the wake of Lac-Mégantic is that oil trains derail more often than similar trains carrying ethanol, another hazardous material. The reason is likely because oil trains tend to be longer and heavier and may be subject to more sloshing forces from the liquid moving inside the not-entirely-full tank cars. Unlike tanker trucks or other types of trains, oil trains don't have to be weighed, and some evidence indicates rail companies may be overfilling oil train cars beyond the current weight limits. And no regulations exist dictating the train lengths safe for transporting flammable materials like oil.
Of course, longer and heavier trains make more money for railroads. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal notes that one of the reasons the rail industry is shifting to ever-longer trains is due to pressure from "activist investors." Activist investors—much like the one who told industry executives they need to lobby against positive train control—apparently are calling the shots about how companies operate their trains.
Given the lack of real safety improvements after Lac-Mégantic, this issue is not going away. Canada just reported record levels of oil-by-rail movements for April of this year. And that number is likely to increase significantly in the next several years, as the oil industry there continues to face pipeline constraints. U.S. oil-by-rail movements are increasing too but remain below the peak levels reached during the Bakken oil-by-rail boom, which lasted from about 2012 to early 2016.
After the recent oil train derailment in Iowa, Kevin Birn of IHS Markit, an energy analytics and consulting company, stated the obvious:
"The accident is a manifestation of increased crude-by-rail from Western Canada due to pipeline constraints."
Despite the evidence showing that long, heavy trains filled with oil derail more often, very little has been done to improve the safety of moving oil by rail since Lac-Mégantic. As oil-by-rail continues on its latest uptick, another catastrophe like the one that claimed 47 lives in a small Quebec town is likely inevitable.
Reason #3: The Rail Barons Are in Charge
In December 2016, a group came together in Ottawa, Canada's capital, to discuss Lac-Mégantic and what the industry and regulators have learned since the devastating events of July 2013.
Brian Stevens, National Rail Director for Unifor, Canada's largest private sector union, was one of the speakers. Stevens previously spent 16 years as an air-brake mechanic working on trains.
Stevens summed up the problem: "Nothing has changed. The railway barons are still there. And stronger than ever."
And while this statement was made by a Canadian at a conference in Canada about an accident in Canada, the rail barons are on both sides of the Canadian-American border.
His statement even came before the Trump administration began its efforts to remove safety measures enacted during the Obama adminstration. Since then, the rail barons successfully had the regulations for modern ECP brakes repealed. Trump appointed the former head of rail company Conrail as the new top rail regulator at the Federal Railroad Administration. If you are a rail baron, this was all great news.
In the first Congressional hearing about rail safety in the Trump era, Rep. Bill Shuster got right to the point about the goal of any changes to regulations when he said that government should "allow the railroad industry to keep more of their profits."
This statement reveals why so little has been accomplished to improve oil-by-rail safety. Moving oil-by-rail in a safe manner may be possible given the raft of potential safety measures outlined here, but it is highly unlikely that the venture would still be profitable for rail companies. As a result, the rail industry is favoring the status quo and federal regulators in the U.S. and Canada have done little to nothing to change that.
Five years after the derailment in Lac-Mégantic, all of the major risks related to moving oil by rail still exist, but the large portion of downtown Lac-Mégantic destroyed that day in 2013 does not. Its continued absence stands as a stark reminder of the very real dangers of the current oil-by-rail industry.
Lac-Mégantic before and after the oil train explosion in July 2013. Claude Grenier, Studio Numéra, Lac-Mégantic
Reposted with permission from our media associate DeSmogBlog.
After decades on the political periphery, the climate movement is entering the mainstream in 2020, with young leaders at the fore. The Sunrise Movement now includes more than 400 local groups educating and advocating for political action on climate change. Countless students around the world have clearly communicated what's at stake for their futures, notably Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who just finished her yearlong school strike for climate. Youth activists have been praised for their flexible, big-picture thinking and ability to harness social media to deliver political wins, as Sunrise recently did for U.S. Sen. Ed Markey's primary campaign. They necessarily challenge the status quo.
A Convergence of Issues<p>The unequal impacts of a changing climate have become extremely clear in 2020, so equity has come to the fore of climate conversations in every corner of the country. A global deadly pandemic continues to rage out of control in the U.S., heat waves are setting new temperature records, wildfires are scorching American Western states, and the hurricane season has already made it to the end of the alphabet for naming storms. In all cases, low-income, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities are bearing a disproportionate amount of the impacts.</p><p>"Today, the scab is off, the ugly reality of injustice is hitting us up close and personal, made more realistic by this COVID pandemic," Bullard says.</p><p>This year the decidedly youthful focus on intersectionality is a big part of what defines the transformation of the climate movement. Climate is not just an environmental issue, according to youth activists. It's also a racial justice issue, an economic issue, and an access-to-health care issue.</p><p>"Environmental justice is really seeing the intersection of these issues," says Alex Rodriguez, a community organizer with the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, which aims to make environmental issues a priority for the state's elected leaders. The group is now focusing their efforts on the coming election and recently succeeded in persuading the state to allow absentee voting in November. "We want people to be safe when casting their vote," says Rodriguez, 26, whose fellow grassroots committee members range from age 16 to 60.</p><p>Rodriguez, who also serves on the equity and environmental justice working group for the Governor's Council on Climate Change, says, "We see our programmatic work as a way to help lawmakers see what they can do to improve the dignity of those suffering from environmental racism, systematic racism, and economic oppression."</p><p>Seeing the overlap and bringing these issues together is a strength that Bullard says was missing from the civil rights organizing he was involved with in the 1960s. He says 2020 is unique in many ways.</p><p>"The number of marchers is unprecedented, from different economic, ethnic, and racial groups—an awakening unlike any that I've seen on this Earth in over 70 years," Bullard says. "Today, the different movements are converging, and I think that convergence makes for greater potential for success."</p>
Young and Old<p>But young people are one essential demographic among many when it comes to climate action. With all that's on the line for climate in the coming elections, up and down the ballot, collaboration becomes key. Bullard says previous generations of climate activists can now play the critical role of mentoring, assisting, and supporting. Standing with, not in front of, youth.</p><p>"Youth are leading us and taking on frontline activity," says Jayce Chiblow, the community engagement lead for Indigenous Climate Action, a Canadian organization that works for Indigenous-led climate justice solutions. But in doing so, she says many young Indigenous activists are experiencing the trauma of violence, getting arrested, and being taken away from their land. "All of our older people are supporting those youth: Elders, mentors, people trained in nonviolent action," Chiblow says. "The youth aren't alone."</p><p>That support can go a long way. "There's a lot of anger and a lot of fear, and that's understandable," says Wazer of Sunrise Connecticut. "I definitely feel those things, too, just considering the ways that our future has been threatened and kind of trashed by older generations."</p><p>Under the Trump administration, the number of environmental rollbacks alone can be disheartening, not to mention new <a href="https://www.yesmagazine.org/video/arctic-national-wildlife-refuge/" target="_blank">drilling permits in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge going up for auction</a>.</p><p>Wazer is frank about the risks of burnout, depression, and anxiety from the stress of it all, but draws inspiration from the example of the late U.S. representative and lifelong civil rights activist John Lewis. "That forgiveness and that ability to keep fighting and stay motivated … I think that that is something really powerful to learn from older generations."</p><p>An intergenerational approach can leverage the individual strengths of youth and older people in all their diversity.</p><p>"The elders hold our stories," says Chiblow, who is Anishinaabe from Garden River First Nation, Ontario. Those stories include lived experiences, culture, history, and generations of adapting to changes in climate. Such collective experience continues to inform Indigenous knowledge and connections to the land, as well as how people manage and govern themselves in relation to it. This knowledge is passed on through relationship-building and storytelling.</p><p>"Every time you hear that story, you're at a different point in your life, and you'll pick up something else … something new," Chiblow says.</p><p>Changes in perspectives that come with time and experience are among the reasons why intergenerational learning and coalitions are critical to the climate movement. To combine that living and learning is to expand the reach and meaning of the message exponentially. As part of her research for her master's degree, Chiblow brought together youth, community leaders, and knowledge keepers in her community to workshop climate action. "Those relationships are vital to keep that movement going," Chiblow says.</p>
The Unique Value Proposition of Elders<p>Older activists bring unique strengths to the table, according to gerontologist Mick Smyer, who designs strategies to move people from anxiety to action on climate. He calls himself "the aging whisperer to climate groups" and "the climate whisperer to aging groups." He is quick to point out that the learning can go in both directions.</p><p>"I think older adults are untapped resources," Smyer says. "Older adults bring several resources, one of which is their circles of influence. Just by virtue of having lived longer, older adults are going to have denser and richer networks," Smyer says. "The second is, when it comes to voting and civic engagement, older adults, as an age group, outperform all other age groups."</p><p>He uses the 2016 presidential election to illustrate his point: "The older age groups, 70% of them voted. Nobody [else] came close." He is cautious about making sweeping statements about older people broadly, but he says that ageism is alive and well. And that can deter the kind of collaboration that would beget necessary progress on climate action.</p><p>As the twin global patterns of an aging population and a changing climate continue arm in arm, Smyer says a good place for starting this work is within one's family.</p><p>"We each have that power to use in our circles of influence, particularly in our families, and we don't realize it," Smyer says. Whether it's via Zoom or FaceTime or a phone call or a chat in the living room, Smyer says, family members have a superpower: They will listen to each other, and they'll at least start the conversation.</p><p> "Intergenerational collaboration around climate issues, particularly in this election season, starts at home, and then goes to the polling booth," he says.</p>
Speaking the Same Language<p>As an individual's network of family, friends, and connections becomes wider and more diverse, the more work will need to be done to have them all working toward the same goals. That is equally true for the climate movement at large.</p><p>In bridging the gaps among baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials, Bullard says, "Each generation will have some idiosyncrasy and uniqueness about it that another generation will not understand or comprehend."</p><p>If everybody in a group or institution is similar, then there's no need to explain a lot, Bullard says. There's usually a fair amount of shared knowledge and values. But the more diverse that group gets, in age, race, gender, or culture, he says, the greater the potential for making mistakes, stepping on people's culture, and causing pain. But the potential for learning also increases exponentially.</p><p>Chiblow says successful collaboration comes down to being able to speak in shared concepts. The term "justice," for example, is an English word that's hard to translate into the Anishinaabe language. Chiblow says that because her community sees itself as belonging to the land, and being part of the land, the Anishinaabe worldview, and therefore their understanding of justice, is necessarily more holistic than the mainstream.</p><p>"Indigenous people have been feeling [the effects of climate change] for so long," Chiblow says. Today, as wildfires rage across the West, the mantra of "I can't breathe" is being driven home on a grand scale. For better and worse, climate justice is finally a front-page story.</p><p>"It's affecting the broader society," Chiblow says. "We're finally at the turning point where we could start to make real change because … people are really starting to feel that urgency."</p><p>The urgency will be tantamount in the coming election. A lot is at stake, says Chiblow: "Incentives, funding, all-around agreement, and also the way we're able to manage our lands and ourselves as people."</p><p>Bullard, too, is insistent on urgency. "This election is one of the most important elections of a generation, because there's so many things at stake," he says. "We can't wait another 40 years on climate. We don't have that much time. We don't have 40 years to get justice."</p><p>Issues of climate justice will be on the ballot in state and local elections this fall, such as Nevada's proposed renewable energy standards and Louisiana's proposed disaster funding. And the topic has finally made it onto the national stage. Joe Biden called Trump a "climate arsonist" for not acting on or even admitting that the wildfires in California are clearly climate-related. The frequency and intensity of such disasters is indisputable.</p><p>"Hurricanes don't swerve to avoid red states or blue states. Wildfires don't skip towns that voted a certain way," Biden <a href="https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/biden-address-west-coast-fires-confront-growing-threat/story?id=73000218" target="_blank">said in a speech on Sept. 14</a>. "The impacts of climate change don't pick and choose. That's because it's not a partisan phenomenon."</p><p>In many ways, the results of the upcoming elections will reflect the ways youth activists and older activists are able come to a common understanding of what climate justice means and what they want the future world to look like. </p><p>"There's a lot of knowledge built up in experience, and there's a lot of energy that's stored in young people," Bullard says. "When you put those two together, you have … an excellent recipe for potential success."</p>
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By Simon Montlake
For more than a decade, Susan Jane Brown has been battling to stop a natural gas pipeline and export terminal from being built in the backcountry of Oregon. As an attorney at the nonprofit Western Environmental Law Center, she has repeatedly argued that the project's environmental, social, and health costs are too high.
All that was before this month's deadly wildfires in Oregon shrouded the skies above her home office in Portland. "It puts a fine point on it. These fossil fuel projects are contributing to global climate change," she says.
Moderates Feeling the Heat<p>If elected, Mr. Biden has vowed to stop new drilling for oil and gas on federal land and in federal waters and to rejoin the 2015 Paris climate accord that President Donald Trump gave notice of quitting. He would reinstate Obama-era regulations of greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, the largest component of natural gas.</p><p>The Biden climate platform also states that all federal infrastructure investments and federal permits would need to be assessed for their climate impacts. Analysts say such a test could impede future LNG plants and pipelines, though not those that already have federal approval. </p><p>Climate change activists who pushed for that language say much depends on who would have oversight of federal agencies that regulate the industry. Some are wary of Biden's reliance on advice from Obama-era officials, including former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who is now on the board of Southern Company, a utility, and a former Obama environmental aide, Heather Zichal, who has served on the board of Cheniere Energy, an LNG exporter. </p>
The Push for U.S. Fuel Exports<p>As vice president, Biden was part of an administration that pushed hard for global climate action while also promoting U.S. oil and gas exports to its allies and trading partners. As fracking boomed, Obama ended a 40-year ban on crude oil exports. In Europe, LNG was touted both as an alternative to coal and as strategic competition with Russian pipelines.</p><p>That much, at least, continued with President Trump. Under Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the agency referred to liquified U.S. hydrocarbons as "<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/29/us/freedom-gas-energy-department.html" target="_blank">freedom gas</a>."</p><p>Mr. Trump has also championed the interests of coal, oil, and gas while denigrating the findings of government climate scientists. He rejected the Paris accord as unfair to the U.S. and detrimental to its economy, but has offered no alternative path to emissions cuts. </p><p>Still, Trump's foreign policy has not always served the LNG industry: Tariffs on foreign steel drove up pipeline costs, and a trade war with China stayed the hand of Chinese LNG importers wary of reliance on U.S. suppliers. </p><p>Even his regulatory rollbacks could be a double-edged sword. By relaxing curbs last month on methane leaks, the U.S. has ceded ground to European regulators who are drafting emissions standards that LNG producers are watching closely. "That's a precursor of fights that will be fought in all the rest of the developed world," says Mr. Hutchison. </p><p>Indeed, some oil-and-gas exporters had urged the Trump administration not to abandon the tougher rules, since they undercut their claim to offer a cleaner-burning way of producing heat and electricity. "U.S. LNG is not going to be able to compete in a world that's focused on methane emissions and intensity," says Erin Blanton, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. </p>
Stepping on the Gas<p>In July, the Department of Energy issued an export license to Jordan Cove's developer, Canada's Pembina Pipeline Corp. In a statement, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said the project would provide "reliable, affordable, and cleaner-burning natural gas to our allies around the world."</p><p>As a West Coast terminal, Jordan Cove offers a faster route to Asia where its capacity of 7.8 million tons of LNG a year could serve to heat more than 15 million homes. At its peak, its construction would also create 6,000 jobs, the company says, in a stagnant corner of Oregon.</p><p>But the project still lacks multiple local and state permits, and its biggest asset – a Pacific port – has become its biggest handicap, says Ms. Blanton. "They are putting infrastructure in a state where there's no political support for the pipeline or the terminal, unlike in Louisiana or Texas," she says. </p><p>Ms. Brown, the environmental lawyer, says she wants to see Jordan Cove buried, not just mothballed until natural gas prices recover. But she knows that it's only one among many LNG projects and that others will likely get built, even if Biden is elected in November, despite growing evidence of the harm caused by methane emissions. </p>
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