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Crews work in the area of the derailed tanker cars in Lac-Mégantic, Que., on July 14, 2013. The train derailment and subsequent fires and explosions destroyed much of the downtown area of the picturesque Quebec town. (PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Crews work in the area of the derailed tanker cars in Lac-Mégantic, Que., on July 14, 2013. The train derailment and subsequent fires and explosions destroyed much of the downtown area of the picturesque Quebec town. (PETER POWER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)


Inside the oil-shipping free-for-all that brought disaster to Lac-Mégantic Add to ...

From the U.S. to Lac-Mégantic: Inside the massive growth of oil by rail (The Globe and Mail)

Calling the situation “unacceptable,” Ms. Raitt said dealing with the matter “is a very high priority.”

Yet even with that change, oil is still not part of the ERAP system, so there is still no requirement that shippers put in place an emergency response plan for crude that could save lives.

Claude Dauphin, the mayor of Lachine, Que., and the president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, said that problem shouldn’t be allowed to continue.

“With what happened at Lac-Mégantic, and what could happen anywhere else in North America, I think we should have the same rules for crude oil. The same thing,” Mr. Dauphin said.

No special measures

The investigation into how oil is classified exposes probably the most significant weakness in the system that is supposed to oversee the booming oil-by-rail industry.

Even if the oil on the Lac-Mégantic train had been correctly identified, it would not have changed how the railway operated, known among engineers as “train handling.”

Although oil is supposedly tested for volatility, that information is primarily of use to emergency responders so they know the type of hazardous materials they are dealing with, and can set evacuation zones accordingly. It has no bearing on how oil cars are handled while in transit. Crude is shipped in standard tankers known as DOT-111 cars, which have been criticized for being susceptible to corrosion and ruptures. One of the biggest gaps in oversight is that the birth of oil unit trains hasn’t required railways or shippers to take any special measures to ship the oil.

The tankers that left North Dakota travelled on a CPR train before being passed off to the MM&A railway for the trip through Lac-Mégantic. But in the only statement it has given since the Lac-Mégantic explosions, World Fuel Services conceded to The Globe that regardless of how the oil was classified at the source, it “would not have changed the manner in which it was handled, transported, routed or responded to by emergency personnel upon MM&A’s derailment,” said a spokesman for the company.

Nor was the disaster in Quebec a freak, one-time accident. On Nov. 8, a unit train carrying 90 tankers of crude oil from the Bakken fields of North Dakota derailed in Alabama, causing huge explosions. Witnesses said the flames rose 90 feet in the air. Much like the Lac-Mégantic derailment, observers were surprised crude oil would cause such a fire.

When companies began moving the first giant oil unit trains out of North Dakota and into Canada, Transport Canada and the U.S. Department of Transportation took no steps to require companies to handle the potentially explosive cargo any differently than if it were lumber or grain, even though inside the railway industry there was acknowledgment this new practice was much more risky.

In Canada, oil refiner Ultramar knew the risks. Ultramar began using a smaller version of the hazardous materials unit train in 1996 that shipped gasoline and heating oil from a refinery near Quebec City to ports outside Montreal. But after six derailments in eight years, including a 1999 collision that killed two people, the company decided to build a pipeline instead. Ultramar president Jean Bernier called the pipeline a “safer” option.

There have been other instances of unit trains carrying hazardous materials, though they are limited. Illinois Central railway decided to run a unit train of hazardous materials from Louisiana to Michigan in the 1970s, carrying chemicals from plants in the southern U.S. to factories in the Great Lakes region. Because the train was unusual, it was treated with special care: The cars went through a rigorous examination before departing, and the train never stopped for long periods of time – and was certainly never left unattended.

“They gave it a really good inspection before it departed the yards, and they expedited the movement. They didn’t have it hanging around different yards, and they weren’t running it every day,” Mr. Pritchard said.

Fast forward to this summer, and the practices governing the MM&A train were much different. Not only had the struggling railway been granted permission by Transport Canada to operate with only a single crewman – which is exceedingly rare – in order to save costs, but there were few rules governing how the oil train must move.

The Globe learned through its investigation that as the train was making its way into Canada from the U.S., the locomotive was visibly sparking due to a broken piston in the engine. Even though this caused smoke in the cabin, the engineer pressed on. Despite carrying 72 cars of potentially explosive cargo, there are no federal rules to dictate how a hazardous materials train must be handled in such a situation, only a railway’s own internal guidelines, which are not made public and are impossible to independently scrutinize.

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