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 while it was in our possession and, to the best of our knowledge, no dilutives or additives were added by the producers. World Fuel Services is committed to a high standard of employee and operational safety performance and, as we have stated previously, we will continue to meet any and all obligations we may have with respect to the accident. Our thoughts and prayers remain with the people of Lac-Megantic," the company said in its e-mail.
In statements and regulatory filings this week, the company highlighted MM&A's responsibility for the deadly derailment. It also said Canadian Pacific subcontracted MM&A to carry the train from Montreal to New Brunswick's border.
On the New York Stock Exchange Thursday, World Fuel's stock plunged more than 10 per cent in heavy intraday trading before recovering some of its losses. The stock closed down $2.63 (U.S.) to $36.31 after 3.5 million shares traded hands.