UPDATE 8-Oil-laden freight train explodes in Canadian town, people killed

Sat Jul 6, 2013 11:40pm EDT

* Canadian police say death toll now one, will rise

* Runaway train jumped rails early in morning

* Transporting crude oil from North Dakota to eastern Canada

* Disaster could figure in debate on Keystone XL pipeline

By Mathieu Belanger

LAC-MEGANTIC, Quebec, July 6 (Reuters) - A fast-moving, driverless train hauling tankers of crude oil derailed and exploded into a sky-high fireball in the middle of a small Canadian town early on Saturday, destroying dozens of buildings and killing several people.

The disaster took place soon after 1 a.m. (0500 GMT) when the runaway freight train with 72 cars and five locomotives hurtled into Lac-Megantic, a lakeside town of about 6,000 in the province of Quebec, and left the tracks.

Police spokesman Guy Lapointe said one person had died, and that toll would rise, but he declined to comment on media reports that anywhere between 40 and 80 people were missing.

"We have already confirmed one death and we expect there will be others," he told a news conference. "We also expect that the number of people reported missing will be greater than the final death toll."

Crude oil shipments by rail have become increasingly popular in North America as pipelines fill to capacity and more and more oil is produced in western regions like Alberta and North Dakota. But accidents on this scale are rare.

Four of the cars - which each carried 30,000 gallons of North Dakotan crude oil - caught fire and blew up in a fireball that mushroomed many hundreds of feet into the air.

It destroyed dozens of buildings, many of them totally flattened, included stores, a library and the popular Musi-Cafe music bar, eyewitnesses said. The town center was crowded with weekend partygoers at the time.

Lapointe said it was hard to calculate the number of possible victims because the area was still too dangerous for police to examine properly. Some people had been reported missing more than once, and some were nowhere near the town.

The blast ruptured a water main, creating a shortage of drinking water, forcing the town to bring in special tankers.

The center of town remained blocked off, but from the air, it was clear that many buildings had been reduced to little more than piles of bricks and wood. Residents' photos showed the burnt out hulks of cars next to smashed houses.

After the blast, burning crude spilled into the storm sewers and rose up through street manholes, setting buildings on fire, the head of the rail company that ran the train told Reuters.

Edward Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, said an engineer had parked the train some distance from the town a few hours before the disaster.

"He claims he set the brakes on all five of the engines. He also claims he set the brakes on a sufficient number of cars on the train," he told Reuters in an interview.

Officials said they had few reports of injured victims, suggesting that people caught up in the blast either died on the spot or managed to escape. One woman told Radio-Canada that she had been unable to contact around 15 of her friends.

Stunned town residents cried in the streets as the impact of the blast sank in. Some hugged each other for comfort.

The rail tracks pass next to the Musi-Cafe, which is popular with young people. Eyewitness Yvon Rosa said he had just left when he saw the train speeding into the middle of the town.

"I have never seen a train traveling that quickly into the center of Lac-Megantic," he told Radio-Canada, saying he watched as the train careened around a bend. "I saw the wagons come off the tracks ... everything exploded. In just one minute the center of the town was covered in fire."

Residents said they had heard five or six large blasts. More than 21 hours after the derailment, one car was still burning and firefighters, some of them from the United States, were still spraying cold water from the lake on five unexploded tanker cars they said posed a particular danger.

CENTER OF TOWN 'ALMOST DESTROYED'

Police imposed a 1/2-mile (1-km) security zone around the blast and evacuated a total of about 2,000 people from their homes.

"When you see the center of your town almost destroyed, you'll understand that we're asking ourselves how we are going to get through this event," a tearful Town Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche told a televised news briefing earlier in the day.

The Canadian Transportation Safety Board, which probes all accidents, said it was looking for the train's "black box" data recorder.

Lac-Megantic is part of Quebec's Eastern Townships region, an area popular with tourists that borders both Maine and Vermont. Quebec is a predominantly French-speaking province in the eastern half of Canada.

Montreal, Maine & Atlantic owns some 510 miles (820 km) of track in Maine and Vermont in the United States and in Quebec and New Brunswick in Canada.

The debate over shipping oil by rail is becoming increasingly topical as U.S. President Barack Obama decides whether to approve TransCanada Corp's proposed Keystone XL pipeline from the oil sands of Alberta to the Texas coast.

Backers of Keystone XL - a project that environmentalists strongly oppose - say transporting oil by pipeline is safer than using rail cars.

There have been a number of high-profile derailments of trains carrying petroleum products in Canada recently, including one in Calgary, Alberta, last week when a flood-damaged bridge sagged toward the still-swollen Bow River. The derailed rail cars were removed without spilling their cargo.

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Comments (2)
MaggieMP wrote:
Two days ago I read an update on the recent West, Texas fertilizer explosion that wreaked such havoc on a small thriving community. Human experience of such an event was fresh on my mind when I learned of this disaster in Lac Megantic, Que. It’s hard to imagine how the experience would be described in human terms, other than by using words like ‘stunning and deeply traumatic’. My best wishes to the townspeople in all respects.

That said – Reuters is probably right – this event will be used to argue in favor of the XL pipeline. And it should not be. For one thing, I don’t know what quality of oil was in the tankers but the toxic bitumen based slurry destined to be pumped through the XL is a far cry from what we recognize as ‘oil’. Further – Americans (and many more Canadians) need to get it through their heads that the XL is already massive, already toxic and destructive to forest, wildlife, and watershed (not to mention cancer spikes in First Nations people of the region). The means of reaching the bitumen is full scale open pit mining; with all vegetation and topsoil (limited in any case that far north) completely removed down a foot or so. Then the stuff is mined, hauled, processed, toxic waste in ponds the size of small lakes along a major rive. And – IF the pipeline is approved, the gung-ho “lets tear everything up to get at the bitumen” attitude could see a region of Canadian forest the size of Florida brought to ruin.

Approval of the XL by argument relying on this tanker disaster would be nothing but irrational ‘confirmation bias’ of those who already want to make $$$ selling Canadian bitumen-fuel on the international market via Gulf shipping – or, if not confirmation bias, then corporatist bias – which may be the same thing.

We’ve this one earth. Without it there’s no life at all, including of course, human. Contribution of this pipeline to climate warming, which in any case is quite possibly already beyond reversal, is inarguable. We have simply got to get our collected intelligence focused on what is essential instead of what we wish were true.

Jul 06, 2013 12:11am EDT  --  Report as abuse
MaggieMP wrote:
Follow up to my statement: I should have made it clear, I do *not* mean to suggest we should haul these fuels by train, or by truck for that matter – except as is absolutely essential as we quickly and with great intent release our dependence on these fossil fuels in every way imaginable. We must take an alert look at how we operate, be scrupulously honest about ‘externalized’ and ‘collateral’ costs that are not figured into what we claim shows as ‘profit’. We now convince ourselves that we must, regardless of cost, do whatever is ‘necessary’ to reach the final drops, clumps, and gases of fossil fuels. We’ve brought ourselves to this situation more or less by innocence and lack of foresight (along the way many have spoken with great concern).

We must find a way for people to be engaged as contributing members to society and the economy but must design an economy that doesn’t force people to destroy earth in order to purchase essentials such as shelter, food, education, and health care. We are so locked into expand and exploit, are so addicted to high-consumption lifestyles, that we’ll use any argument available to convince ourselves and others that “its regrettable to destroy earth, but what choice do we have?”. This is truly a remarkable line of thought.

We claim to be an intelligent, curious, optimistic, problem solving species that is willing and able to ‘slog through difficulty’ for a better tomorrow. I believe this is true about us; I believe we can, if we decide, find our way out. However, I don’t see us behaving with concern that matches the scope of our problem. I see us behaving as if we don’t really want to identify how threatening our ‘systems and styles’ are to the very earth without which – as I said – we’d not exist.

Jul 06, 2013 12:53am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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