Deadly Fracked Bakken Oil: Focus of Lac-Mégantic probe turns to North Dakota oil fields by Jacquie McNIsh and Justin Giovannetti, August 1, 2013, The Globe and Mail
A federal investigation into the fatal Lac-Mégantic train derailment and fiery crude oil explosion has shifted from Quebec to North Dakota, where the oil was drilled, purchased and loaded onto rail cars. Ed Belkaloul, the Quebec head of the Transportation Safety Board, said a team of investigators was recently dispatched to North Dakota after experts confirmed that the oil reacted “in a way that was abnormal” after a runaway train carrying 72 cars of crude crashed into the small town’s centre in early July. Within minutes of impact, the trains erupted into a huge fireball of burning crude that killed 47 residents and levelled more than 40 buildings. The train, operated by the small regional carrier Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, was carrying light oil from the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota where crude is drilled up from rock through a process known as fracking. Environmental groups and Canadian pipeline operator Enbridge Inc. have complained to U.S. federal regulators about the volatile and potentially unsafe chemical makeup of Bakken crude. “We are aware of those experiences and have sent investigators to North Dakota, we are following the oil from the wellhead to here,” said Donald Ross, the safety board’s head investigator in Lac-Mégantic. Oil has been taken from each of the oil cars for analysis at an Ottawa-based labratory, and it could be months before the results of these tests are publicized.
Bakken oil is typically lighter than Alberta crude, rendering it more flammable when exposed to heat. This potential volatility is raising questions about whether railways and regulators are taking sufficient precautions when transporting the oil. Shortly after the derailment, Ottawa unveiled a series of tighter safety rules that call for more rail staff, supervision and safety precautions for trains carrying hazardous materials. Edward Burkhardt, chairman of MM&A, said one of the many questions raised by the Lac-Mégantic tragedy is whether the hazards posed by shipping Bakken crude by rail should be reassessed. “It looks like it was much more dangerous than we were predisposed to believe,” he said. Mr. Burkhardt has accepted responsiblity for MM&A’s failure to set sufficient emergency brakes on the train parked on a hill overlooking Lac-Mégantic. The oil on the ill-fated MM&A train was purchased by Miami-based oil logistics company World Fuel Services Corp., which then leased rail cars and pumped the oil into tanker cars. Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. carried the oil from North Dakota, across Canada to Montreal, where MM&A locomotives picked up the train for delivery to a New Brunswick refinery owned by Irving Oil. “Nobody knew what they were carrying. I can assure you CP didn’t know any more than we did,” Mr. Burkhardt said. A spokesman for CP declined to comment.
In a statement e-mailed to The Globe and Mail, World Fuel said it acquired the crude oil from North Dakota producers and arranged for the oil to be transported by trucks to its loading terminal in New Town. The oil was then loaded onto rail cars and the train “departed under the control and supervision” of Canadian Pacific. “No dilutives or additives were blended with the crude oil…no dilutives or additives were added by the producers….” the company said in its e-mail. [Emphasis added]
Abnormal ‘strength of the fire’ puzzles investigators in Lac-Mégantic train disaster, Force of the fire does not match the ‘classification’ of oil labelled on the train tankers; conclusions months away by Sue Montgomery, August 1, 2013, The Montreal Gazette in Calgary Herald
LAC-MÉGANTIC — Transport Safety Board investigators have wrapped up their work on the site of the July 6 train explosion, saying they were surprised by the “abnormal” force of the fire and subsequent explosions. Lead investigator Donald Ross said the cargo in the train was labelled as “Class 3” and “some of the fire characteristics” didn’t match what would be expected from that classification. “Most people were quite surprised by the strength of the fire and the subsequent explosions,” he said at a news conference Thursday. But investigators have yet to draw any conclusions as investigators now retreat to their laboratories to do analyses, simulations and tests. It could be months before they get to the bottom of what caused an unmanned train carrying millions of litres of petroleum crude oil to careen off the tracks and explode, killing 47 people in this Eastern Townships village. “Our focus is on safety so we want to make sure the goods were properly described and packaged,” Ross said. “We will find out how and why this happened so it never happens again.”
He said TSB investigators have been sent to North Dakota, where the train was loaded and began its journey north. “So we’re checking right from the wellhead backwards.” The next steps will include numerous tests of the fluid inside the train’s tanker cars to verify the properties of the petroleum product, which set off several fireballs after the crash. Ross said the liquid that was supposed to be in the rail cars is not seen as flammable enough to create such large blasts. “We want to make sure that the dangerous goods that were involved here, that they were properly described, that they were properly packaged in the right tank cars — and we’re going to check into all those things.” Fellow TSB investigator Ed Belkaloul added that the crude oil reacted in an “abnormal” way. The agency said the laboratory phase will also include the analysis of metallurgical samples, damage records and photographs to determine the viability of the tanker cars involved in the July 6 crash. [Emphasis added]
Railway company has stopped paying for Lac-Mégantic disaster cleanup: mayor by Tu Thanh Ha, July 23, 2013, The Globe and Mail
The railway company involved in the deadly train derailment at Lac-Mégantic has stopped paying for the clean-up of the disaster site, forcing the town to pick up the tab, Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche said Tuesday. The town has sent a lawyer’s letter to Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, giving the transport company 48 hours to repay the more than $4-million Lac-Mégantic has had to pay so far to retain the three firms initially hired by MM&A. “This situation is highly deplorable on MM&A’s part. It’s unacceptable,” Ms. Roy-Laroche told reporters. “The town of Lac-Mégantic cannot tolerate this.” MM&A chairman Ed Burkhardt could not immediately be reached for comment. Ms. Roy-Laroche said some of the contractors had stopped working on the mop-up operations and threatened to walk off last week. “I hope that MM&A will respect its pledges and that they’ll act as good corporate citizens,” Ms. Roy-Laroche said. … Sûreté du Québec Inspector Michel Forget said Tuesday no new human remains had been found and most tanker cars have been removed from the site, to be decontaminated and then destroyed. Both Insp. Forget and the provincial coroner’s spokeswoman Geneviève Guilbault said officials still hopeful and optimistic that they can still discover more remains. She warned, however, that “we’ll do all we can, but we have to be realistic and cannot discard the possibility that some cannot be recovered.” Ms. Guilbault said remains of 29 of 42 victims have been identified.
Provincial Environment Minister Yves-François Blanchet has estimated that 250,000 to 300,000 litres of light crude spilled into Lac-Mégantic and the Chaudière river. Ms. Roy-Laroche said her town is also formally asking MM&A to identify the name and the professional qualifications of the person who is in charge of supervising the contractors. The town also does not have a complete list of the contractors and their fees and mandates. “We won’t tolerate any delays in the works due to MM&A being negligent or its failure to pay its suppliers,” the mayor said. “To ask MM&A to reimburse us and pay its suppliers is not asking a lot, considering the circumstances.” Quebec Public Security Minister Stéphane Bergeron said any interruptions in the clean-up would have an impact on the decontamination of the site and would further hinder the ability to recover victims’ remains and investigate the accident.
Pay $4.1M cost of Lac-Mégantic cleanup or face legal action, railway boss told by Graeme Hamilton, July 23, 2013, Financial Post
MONTREAL — Its runaway train destroyed much of downtown Lac-Mégantic, Que. killing an estimated 47 people. But the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic railway has apparently left it to the town itself foot the bill for the resulting environmental cleanup. Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche announced Tuesday that the town has sent the railway a lawyer’s letter demanding repayment of $4.1-million it has advanced so far to firms that MMA hired to clean up millions of litres of spilled crude oil. Some companies had stopped work and threatened to pull out if they were not paid, Ms. Roy-Laroche said. “This situation is highly deplorable on MMA’s part and it is completely unacceptable,” she told a news conference Tuesday in Lac-Mégantic. “Any delay in the cleaning and recovery of hydrocarbons from the site causes a serious prejudice to the town and its citizens.” Messages left with MMA chairman Edward Burkhardt and with a Montreal lawyer representing the railway were not returned Tuesday afternoon. However, last week MMA laid off 79 of its 179 employees, including 19 in Quebec. The company said the layoffs were temporary, prompted by the shutdown of its Lac-Mégantic line as a result of the disaster. … Jim Carson, president of Ottawa-based Eastern Canada Response Corp., said MMA hired his company the morning of the derailment to work on recovering oil from the lake and river, but it never paid a cent. “We made it very clear at one point last week that this can’t go on. We can’t continue to work here for nothing,” Mr. Carson said. “We’re not their local fire department.” The municipality covered the $1.4-million Mr. Carson’s firm was owed, in addition to $2-million owed to MD-UN Inc., a Saint-Amable, Que. company that cleans up environmental hazards, and $750,000 owed to CTEH of Arkansas, which provides toxicology consulting services.
Probe of Lac-Mégantic train disaster turns to composition of oil by Jacquie McNish and Grant Robertson, July 19, 2013, Globe and Mail
Federal officials probing the Lac-Mégantic disaster are testing the chemical composition of crude oil carried by the runaway train as they seek to answer the crucial question of what triggered the unusual and devastating explosion after the derailment. Transportation Safety Board investigators are collecting oil samples from each of the 72 rail cars that hurtled down a hill into the small Quebec town and ignited an enormous fireball that levelled more than 40 buildings and, as of the latest count, has killed 42 people. Edward Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Inc., which operated the derailed train, said Canadian authorities have impounded the rail cars to take “a huge number of samples of oil.” He said the investigators and officials in the rail and oil industries “are asking how come there were explosions here. Crude does not blow up.”
People familiar with the investigation said the TSB is examining the composition of the oil that fuelled the explosion. Industry sources said there are several possibilities. One is whether the crude, which came from the Bakken oil region of North Dakota, contained volatile chemicals. A possible scenario is that additives were intentionally combined with the crude oil to speed up the transfer of the syrupy oil, common for pipelines but rare in the rail industry. Another possibility is that the tanker cars had chemical contaminants from a previous shipment. Another question is whether the oil contained high levels of flammable hydrogen sulphide gas, which is sometimes present in Bakken oil. … “There are questions in the industry as to whether, in fact, the oil is mislabelled when it comes to its qualities. When the Transportation Safety Board issues its report, it is going to be hundreds of pages, and a huge amount of it will be devoted to chemical composition – where this stuff came from and what to do about it,” he said.
Mr. Burkhardt said he also expects investigators look to see if a local propane tank might have been detonated by the impact of so many heavy oil cars in a confined urban area and triggered the larger explosion. He disputed earlier media reports that there was a propane tanker in the vicinity of the derailment. Although MM&A has accepted responsibility for the derailment, the potentially volatile chemical makeup of the Bakken oil is becoming a subject of increasing controversy in the transportation sector. Some oil extracted from the Bakken fields has been found to contain high levels of the foul-smelling hydrogen sulphide vapour, which is flammable, corrosive, poisonous and explosive. The gas is formed below ground when organic matter breaks down in the absence of oxygen. Another question is whether the oil contained high levels of flammable hydrogen sulphide gas, which is sometimes present in Bakken oil. Although hydrogen sulphide is a common impurity in oil and gas extraction, there is a debate over whether Bakken crude contains dangerous levels of it. In May, pipeline operator Enbridge Inc. filed regulatory documents to the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission seeking permission to refuse to ship Bakken crude with extremely high levels of hydrogen sulfide through its pipelines. Enbridge said in a submission to the commission that it wanted to ensure “the safe operation of its system and the health and safety of its employees.”
Some observers are also questioning whether high temperatures in Quebec the day before the crash made the oil more flammable. John Cottreau, a spokesman for the TSB, said the regulator is still collecting and analyzing crude samples at Lac-Mégantic. It is expected that it will be months before the regulator issues its report. Transport Canada is also probing the explosions in a separate investigation. “Transport Canada has obtained a warrant and is gathering evidence to determine if rules and regulations under the Railway Safety Act and the Transportation of Dangerous Goods Act have been followed,” a spokeswoman for the department said in an e-mail. She would not elaborate on the contents of the warrant, which is sealed. Non-compliance with federal regulations could lead to criminal charges. The derailed train was carrying crude from oil fields in the northwest corner of North Dakota to an Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, N.B. Regulators in the United States say rail carriers are responsible for knowing what they are carrying, and that the shipper and the railway company are required to work out such details when the train is being loaded. “The carriers have to know exactly what it is that they’re hauling at all times,” said Warren Flateau, a spokesman for the Federal Railway Association in Washington. Mr. Burkhardt said MM&A received a detailed bill of lading from the U.S. oil services company, which he declined to identify, and no chemicals were identified as being present in the crude. The intermediary oil services company leased the rail cars, loaded them with oil and then contracted three separate railway companies to transport them. The first carrier was Canadian Pacific Railway, which handed over the train to MM&A in Montreal. From there, MM&A was to deliver the oil cars to a small rail company in New Brunswick owned by the Irving family. According to people familiar with the Lac-Mégantic train shipment, the company that bought and loaded the leased rail cars was World Fuel Services Corp., a publicly traded company based in Miami. A spokeswoman for the company did not return phone. In response to questions about the safety of the Bakken crude on the derailed train, a Canadian Pacific spokesman said in a statement that “CP meets or exceeds all federal operating and safety regulations and rules. As we do on an ongoing basis, the recent tragedy allows us to review our safety procedures in an effort to identify any potential opportunities for further improvement.”
Size of Lac Megantic oil spill remains a company secret, The company cleaning the oil out of the Chaudière River in Lac-Mégantic will not say how much they have removed, citing a confidentiality agreement with the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway by Eric Andrew-Gee Staff Reporter, July 17, 2013, The Toronto Star
As flames soared above Lac-Mégantic, Que., in the early hours of July 6, the railway company whose train had jumped the tracks and exploded hours earlier made an urgent phone call to Cornwall, Ont. That’s where the emergency dispatcher for Ottawa-based oil clean-up specialist Eastern Canada Response Corporation (ECRC) is located. Later that day, ECRC was on the scene in Lac-Mégantic, using a complicated array of technologies to remove oil from the Chaudière River, which feeds into the St. Lawrence. Since then, the company’s booms, vacuums, skimmers, and trucks have removed about 100,000 litres of oil from the Chaudière, according to an estimate by the Quebec environment minister. A massive clean-up remains at the site of the train derailment and fire in Lac-Mégantic, Que., that left 37 people dead and another 13 missing and presumed dead.
The minister has said that in weeks, if not days, the ecological danger to the river will have passed. But as light crude continues to shimmer on the river’s surface and dead fish slick with oil continue to be pulled ashore, the true size of the spill remains unknown. That’s because a confidentiality agreement between Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway and ECRC prevents the clean-up company from disclosing how much oil and water they have pulled from the river. Asked whether the company had told them the scope of the oil removal, Jean-Marc Lachance, a regional director in the Quebec environment ministry said, “It’s something we’re working on.” “We’ll have them one day,” he said of the figures, conceding that the 100,000-litre estimate was “just a guess.” The train that derailed at Lac-Mégantic comprised 73 tank cars, each capable of carrying almost 100,000 litres of crude. Some of the spilled oil is thought to have burned up in the fire that consumed half of the city’s downtown. ECRC president Jim Carson confirmed that the company has not shared the quantity of oil removed from the river with any government body. “I can’t give you that,” said Carson when asked about the amount. “There’s some confidentiality here towards our client.” Carson explained that under Canadian law, the polluter in an oil spill has to pay for the cleanup. That means that the company responsible for the spill generally hires a company like ECRC and gives them “marching orders.” Environment Canada and the provincial government have a presence along the Chaudière, but they are there in a “monitoring role,” Carson said. “They recommend things, but we take our direction from (MMA).”
The environment ministry insists they have some input. “We’re working with them on their methods of cleaning the riverbed,” Lachance said. But all of the equipment and staff cleaning the river belong to ECRC, Carson noted. The company is using a range of devices to remove the light crude, from sausage-like “sorbent booms” made of shredded cellulose that soak up the oil; to “mini-vacs” that hoover oil off the water’s surface; to large drums called “skimmers” that spin in deeper sections of the river and bind the oily water to their plastic surface. The company has also used non-absorbent booms to divert the oil, running with the river’s current, toward the shore, where it’s easier to remove. The light crude oil spilled by the train sits like a “skin” on the water surface, Carson said. The summer heat has helped evaporate some of it. Heavy crude would have evaporated less and been harder to clean, he said. A group of citizens calling themselves “Nos cheveux à Mégantic” approached the company about using booms made of human hair in the clean-up, but the company declined. When the oil is collected, it is trucked to a disposal plant. The company knows how much water and oil they have gathered, but cannot tell for sure how much of the liquid is oil and how much is water. Keith Stewart, a Greenpeace researcher, said he was “stunned” by ECRC’s silence on the oil removal total. “By keeping (the government) in the dark, you’re making everyone’s life more difficult . . . . Why complicate what is already one of the most complicated oil spill cleanups in Canada’s history?” Carson said he had “no idea” how long the cleanup would take. “I wouldn’t want to give any number because it’s so uncertain,” he said. The environment ministry says the ecological fallout from the oil spill will be minimal, and short-lived. “A few dozen (dead) fish along hundreds of kilometers is not a lot,” said Lachance. He also said that a visual survey of the river’s surface suggests most of the oil is gone or lodged in the riverbed, where it is just a matter of digging it out. Authorities were also quick to pronounce the lake safe to swim in last week, although residents interviewed by the Star said they still considered the lake dirty and would not swim in it. [Emphasis added]
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 by Martin Lukacs, July 11, 2013, The Guardian
Five days after a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, the rural town resembles a scene of desolation. Its downtown is a charred sacrifice zone. 50 people are likely dead, making the train’s toll one of the worst disasters in recent Canadian history. In the explosion’s aftermath, politicians and media pundits have wagged their finger about the indecency of “politicising” the event, of grappling with deeper explanations. We can mourn, but not scrutinise. In April, prime minister Stephen Harper even coined an awkward expression – “committing sociology” – to deride the search for root causes about horrifying events, in the wake of an unrelated, alleged bombing attempt. But to simply call the Lac-Mégantic explosion a “tragedy” and to stop there, is to make it seem like an accident that occurred solely because of human error or technical oversight. It risks missing how we might assign broader culpability. And we owe it to the people who died to understand the reasons why such a disaster occurred, and how it might be prevented in the future. So here’s my bit of unwelcome sociology: the explosion in Lac-Mégantic is not merely a tragedy. It is a corporate crime scene. The deeper evidence about this event won’t be found in the train’s black box, or by questioning the one engineer who left the train before it loosened and careened unmanned into the heart of this tiny town. For that you’ll have to look at how Lac-Mégantic was hit by a perfect storm of greed, deregulation and an extreme energy rush driving companies to ever greater gambles with the environment and human life.
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. The railway in Canada has hardly been exempt. Up until the mid 1980s, the industry, publicly-run, was under serious regulation. By the time the Thatcherite Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney was finished with his reforms, it was deregulated, and companies had rewritten the safety rules. That launched an era of cost-cutting, massive lay-offs, and speed-ups on the job, and eventually, the full privatization of companies and rail-lines. The Liberal government completed the job by turning over what regulation remained to rail companies themselves. A report issued in 2007 by a safety group spelled out the result: Canada’s rail system was a disaster in the waiting. It’s little wonder, then, that today’s oil and rail barons have cut corners with ease. They’ve been using old rail cars to ship oil, despite the fact that regulators warned the federal government they were unsafe, as far back as 20 years ago. A more recent report by a federal agency reminded the government that the cars could be “subject to damage and catastrophic loss of hazardous materials.” All were ignored. To top it off, the federal government gave the go-ahead last year to Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway to operate with just one engineer aboard their trains. All of which means it will not suffice to find out if a brake malfunctioned the night of the disaster, or limit ourselves to pointing at the failings of lax regulation. The debate should be about the need for another kind of brake, over the mad pursuit of infinite resources, and the unshackling of reckless corporations, on a finite and fragile planet. Canada’s political class will not be pleased by the lessons to be drawn. The government needs to get back into the business of heavily regulating corporations – through incentives, through taxes, and through sanctions. And this will involve not just grappling with the dangers of the transport of oil – which will remain unsafe, whether by rail or by pipeline – but starting a rapid transition away from an extreme energy economy entirely. That will not happen as the result of any government inquiry, but a noisy social movement that puts it on the public agenda. That’s why the most fitting response to Lac-Mégantic actually happened two weeks ago, by US residents 100 miles across the border in Fairfield, Maine. They were arrested blockading a train carrying the same fracked oil from the same oilfields of Northern Dakota, to the same refinery in New Brunswick, Canada. Their message was about ending our reliance on oil, not soon but now. For those who never knew the victims of Lac-Mégantic, there could be no better way to honour them. [Emphasis added]
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