Jul 22, 2013
On July 6th, an explosion and fire in oil tank cars devastated the town of Lac Mégantic in east Canada, leaving 42 dead and eight people still missing two weeks later.
The train of 72 tank cars owned by Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway was parked on a slope in the neighboring town of Nantes. The accident began with a fire on the first locomotive while the train was stopped in Nantes. The train then rolled without anyone on board, ending at Lac Mégantic, where the cars exploded.
The cargo of oil that derailed in Lac Mégantic came from the North Dakota shale deposits. Since oil pipelines aren’t completed yet for these deposits, the oil companies use tank car transportation through the U.S. and Canada, lines that go right through cities. The oil companies chose not to wait until the oil pipelines were complete to get their profitable oil to market.
Transporting oil is highly profitable. Burlington Northern and Santa Fe, controlled by billionaire Warren Buffet, transports a million barrels a day. The Canadian Pacific Railroad brags about transporting nineteen times more oil than it did in 2010.
These shipments are carried out under dangerous conditions. There were 112 oil spills on railroads in the U.S. between 2001 and 2012. Recently, two different trains derailed in two days near Lac Mégantic, with one spilling 3,400 gallons of fuel. A Lac Mégantic resident told the press about the poor condition and lack of maintenance on the tracks, which he called “loaded guns.” Railroads’ cutbacks have led to a reduction in inspectors and safety workers on the lines.
The conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, after comparing the devastated city to a “war zone,” said it would be “irresponsible to comment on the situation.” But there’s plenty to be said about government responsibility. Accidents continue, but the Canadian government does little to restrict the companies. Companies are allowed to regulate themselves. The government spends only a paltry three million dollars on rail safety, while the number of rail shipments has surged. Local governments and fire departments aren’t told about train schedules and what is being shipped. For example, two days after the explosion, the Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway still hadn’t said exactly what petroleum products were on the train.
Corporate and government complicity and negligence will lead to more such catastrophes. The railroad and oil companies profit by endangering the population.