The Lac-Mégantic crude oil train derailment tragedy: A year later, are we safer?
Today over 1,000 people packed Ste-Agnes Church in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec to remember the 47 people who died there one year ago after a run-away crude oil train derailed and exploded. Together with Mayor Roy Laroche, who gave a moving speech on the disaster today, residents are calling for no more crude oil trains through their community. They want bypass tracks built.
And for good reason. Experts say that not a lot has changed to improve safety since the Lac-Mégantic derailment tragedy woke everyone up to the nightmare of mass amounts of volatile crude oil moving by rail. Since then there have been over a dozen serious crude oil train derailments, six with major fires, but luckily no more fatalities. While Canada has taken some steps to improve safety like removing the most dangerous tank cars from crude by rail service, the U.S. has done little more than a feeble listing of voluntary measures.
Today marks the beginning of a week of action to call attention to the dual threats of moving extreme crude oil by rail. How many trains travel through communities carrying crude oil? What kind of crude oil – how dirty and how volatile is it? How close are the tracks to schools and homes? According to recent reports of crude oil train activity, the largest rail company moving crude oil, BNSF, ships 170 or more mile-long trains each week from North Dakota’s Bakken crude oil play. BNSF brags about its safety culture but in reality has done little to improve crude oil rail safety. At a recent conference a representative of BNSF stammered after being asked how many dangerous old tank cars they’ve replaced so far, and ultimately couldn’t answer the question. Because of the serious safety threats posed by transport of crude oil by rail and the health, environmental and safety threats of using extreme crude oil, some groups have issued a call to Keep oil off the rails and in the ground (Join this event in Sacramento on Wednesday July 9th).
Note: The picture below, taken in Hawthorne Woods, Illinois, shows a rail tank car passing a playground - an all too frequent sight.
In California alone, at least 4 million people and hundreds of schools are directly in harm’s way next to rail lines, facing serious safety risks from potential crude oil train derailments. According to maps that were recently released by the state’s Working Group on Oil by Rail Safety, many rail lines through California cities are surrounded by residential neighborhoods, schools and hospitals. The state’s rail network is also cris-crossed with fault lines, rivers and streams, and sensitive wildlife habitats. It turns out that there are many measures that can be taken to dramatically improve crude by rail safety (like slowing down and replacing the most dangerous old tank cars), as soon as the oil and rail industries are ready to take responsibility for the problem and implement basic safety measures to avert future disasters.
While rebuilding has gone on in Lac-Mégantic and there are efforts at renewal with trout released into the lake and butterflies released into the sky today, many residents are still haunted by the derailment disaster. Construction equipment is busily working in the downtown area where the post office, library and restaurants once stood. Residents are bracing for a battle to get the rail lines to bypass the town center. Throughout America, one year later, as ever more crude oil trains speed through communities, we are all still asking: Are we any safer?
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