One Year after Historic Oil Train Disaster, Risks Abound
Journalist Steve Horn and Greenpeace Canada’s Keith Stewart discuss how the transportation of crude oil via rail has only increased despite alarming safety concerns and environmental risks
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. This week marks the one-year anniversary of one of the deadliest train disasters in Canadian history. Forty-seven people were tragically killed in the small town of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec. The added train unattended train derailed while carrying highly flammable crude oil, which comes from the Bakken region of North America. The U.S. regulator Pipeline and Hazardous Hazardous Materials Safety Administration says that this particular crude may be more flammable and therefore more dangerous to ship by rail than other crude oil.
Joining us now to look at the current situation one year later are our two guests. Steve Horn is a journalist and research fellow at DeSmogBlog. And joining us from Canada is Keith Stewart, who is the climate and energy campaigner with Greenpeace Canada.
Thank you both for joining us.
STEVE HORN, RESEARCH FELLOW, DESMOGBLOG: Thanks for having me.
KEITH STEWART, RESEARCHER, GREENPEACE CANADA: Thanks for having us on.
DESVARIEUX: So, Keith, let’s start off with you. This was the deadliest deadliest train disaster in Canada since 1864, and it’s basically just this national tragedy. And I know the Canadian press has been covering it extensively this week. The cleanup costs may total up to $2.7 billion. And that’s going to mean taxpayer dollars, essentially come to clean up this mess. You looked at the potential hazards before this derailment even happened. Can you just talk to us about who you think is the responsible and what you think is responsible for this tragedy?
STEWART: Yeah. I mean, this was a tragedy with massive loss of life, and you basically had a wall of burning oil going through the downtown of a small town in Canada.
At its core I think that the problem was regulators and regulation in Canada hadn’t kept up with the boom in oil by rail. Back in 2009, we had a grand total of about 500 carloads of oil moved on rail in the entire year. By December 2013, we had over 500 car loads on the rails lines in Canada every single day. So you go from, you know, the amount you used to have in a year to happening every day, and the risk of disaster goes up, as does the fact that whereas it used to be, you know, one or two, maybe three cars of oil in an entire train mixed with other stuff, you now have these mile-long trains filled with oil. So what we saw in Lac-Mégantic was, once there was a derailment, you know, derailments you get a lot of sparks, there was explosions, and it actually basically ruptured all of the other cars. So you end up with, actually, with one of the largest major oil spills at the same time, which then was on fire.
And I think prior to Lac-Mégantic, we’d sort of–at Greenpeace we’d noticed this rise in oil by rail. We were trying to figure out what it meant. We’d been doing some research on and had submitted a lot of requests under Canada’s Access to Information, similar to U.S. Freedom of Information requests, and to get information on what the government knew and what they were talking to industry about. And what really amazed us was how little the government was thinking about safety. They were all about how can we get oil to market as quickly as possible, as cheaply as possible. They’re facing problems with pipeline everywhere in Canada and the U.S. with Keystone, in Canada with Northern Gateway Pipeline. So they were looking at ways to move it by rail. And even though they’d had warnings for over 20 years from their safety experts–the Canada Transportation Safety Board and actually the U.S. counterpart the National Transportation Safety Board–that the types of cars that were being used are simply unsafe for hazardous liquids, and we’ve known this since the 1990s.
DESVARIEUX: Steve, you’ve also done your digging on this topic, and as Keith had mentioned, can you just talk about some of the players in place here? Who exactly is trying to keep these regulations from coming forward? Who are we talking about specifically?
HORN: Yeah, well, in the United States since this horrific accident in Lac-Mégantic, there’s basically been pressure for the U.S. government to do something about, you know, the cars and actually documenting where they’re going, because lots of state emergency responders actually have no idea how many trains are moving through their states on a daily basis. So, you know, as disasters have racked up in the United States since then, including in Castleton, North Dakota, including in Aliceville, Alabama, and including in Lynchburg, Virginia–so three pretty major ones that–all three of those cities or towns dodged bullets, basically, in another Lac-Mégantic not happening. They were lucky.
But the long story short is in reaction to those, the Department of Transportation has issued an emergency order to–first of all, the emergency order is just to let state level emergency responders know what the routes are and, you know, what the substance is so that they can react to it once the disasters happen.
I think more importantly is what’s been happening through the Department of Transportation in their writing of rules and regulations for this oil by rail. And they’re still hammering that out.
But as it’s happening–and I’ve been investigating this really closely–the White House has been really involved, the Obama White House, through the Office of Information Regulatory Affairs, or OIRA. And so while the Department of Transportation is still working on these rules, OIRA has been sort of an open door for, you know, industry lobbyists from the rail industry and oil industry and industry attorneys and executives, all of them, to kind of get together and make sure that these rules from their end aren’t too strong. And so you can see in OIRA records that, you know, they’re looking at watering down, you know, speed limits, they looking at pushing for leaving trains unmanned, which is what happened in Lac-Mégantic–that was an unmanned train. And they’re also looking at making sure that the DOT-111s or the Department of Transportation 111 cars, which were the ones that ruptured and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, making sure that those can still remain on the tracks, ’cause it would be expensive to replace those. So all of that has been happening. There’s been about a dozen meetings in the past month and a half or so. And I expect the door to remain open at OIRA, as has–you know, if you look at the history of OIRA, that’s why it’s been there since the Reagan era. I expect that door to remain open while the DOT works on those rules. And, unfortunately, it looks like what could be strong rules may be watered down–in the United States, at least, because of the work of OIRA.
DESVARIEUX: So this Lac-Mégantic tragedy really highlights the dangers of transporting oil. And some are saying that this should be an argument for pipelines such as the Keystone XL. So, Keith, why not go for that option of using pipelines?
STEWART: Well, this is the choice the oil industry wants to put before us: pick your poison: pipelines or rail. They both have problems. I mean, we’ve seen massive spills like the one Enbridge actually had in Michigan with the spelling bitumen, which actually sinks in water, so therefore it’s much more hazardous. And we actually think what we should be looking at is, when we’re building new infrastructure, should it be clean energy or dirty energy? The reason that we’re moving stuff by rail and want to build all these pipelines is to get, in Canada, more oil out of the tar sands–and in the U.S. it’s out of shale out of North Dakota. Both of those have massive impacts on water resources, water contamination, air contamination, and climate change. And rather than spending these billions and billions of dollars to build new pipelines and new tar sands lines, we could be investing in public transit, in electrifying transportation and clean energy. And that’s a debate that the industry really doesn’t want us to have. They want us to sort of say, okay, you know, if you don’t like rail, then let us build our pipelines. Oh, but we’re going to need more rail as well.
And so, in Canada, for instance, we’ve seen heavy lobbying. CN rail was lobbying very hard and quite successfully to avoid this requirement that oil trains have someone with them at all times. That’s expensive. They have to pay people. They didn’t want to do that. That rule was brought in initially post Lac-Mégantic and then later quietly removed between Christmas and New Year’s, when no one is paying attention. And we have internal documents showing that they were lobbying against that.
In Canada, we are requiring that the oldest DOT-111 cars be phased out over the next three years. But the newer ones, which also, you know, the safety boards have said aren’t safe, those get to stay on the rail we don’t know how long. And, you know, we think you should, number one, ban the use of the DOT-111 cars right now because they simply aren’t safe enough, and the government should be looking at how we can sort of make that transition to green energy rather than, you know, asking us to pick which of the risks is worse between pipelines and rail.
DESVARIEUX: Yeah, go ahead, Steve.
HORN: Yeah, one thing I would say is, if you look at the disaster in Lynchburg, Virginia, I think, ’cause we’re talking about two debates sort of that are all related to one–both related to one another–the one debate is pipeline versus rail. The other debate is the DOT-111 versus these other cars, called CPC-1232s. If you look at the Lynchburg, Virginia, disaster that happened–or the near disaster, but there was an explosion, and some of the oil did spill into the James River–some of those cars were actually CPC-1232s. And the secretary of transportation of the United States, Anthony Foxx, actually did go on the Rachel Maddow show not too long after the disaster and acknowledged that those were–some of those were CPC-1232s. So even those have some problems. So we’re not looking at something that just–if we replace most DOT-111s, that it’s a foolproof solution.
And then, second of all, sort of the narrative of oil pipelines versus oil by rail, it’s a manufactured one by the industry to seem like there’s in a choice between the two. But what’s really happening, at least from the United States’ perspective, and even looking at Canada, because it’s related to a debate over the Enbridge Northern Gateway, actually there’s a huge pipeline proposal Enbridge has put forth to move some of that Bakken oil by pipeline while the rail would still remain in place. It’s called the Enbridge Sandpiper Pipeline, and that would move oil from North Dakota through Minnesota into the state that I live in, in Wisconsin and superior Wisconsin. So we’re looking at–it’s not–you know, from their perspective, they might–that’s their public narrative, but in reality they’re really looking to get it to market in any way possible. And I think that’s the way that we should understand it.
DESVARIEUX: Yeah. As I’m hearing you both, it comes to mind that we’re talking about the United States, and we’re also talking about Canada. But is there a big difference? Are they worlds apart in terms of regulation? Steve, I know you cover this issue on both sides of the border. What would you say? Is there a lesser of the two evils?
HORN: Well, Canada has moved more quickly for the DOT-111 phaseouts, and as Keith said, that will be in place by 2017. In the United States, we’re still worlds behind. We’re still at that phase where it’s being watered down right now through OIRA, and the Department of Transportation has yet to put forward rules. Those rules should be in place probably by the end of this year, but it’s still unclear if those rules will be weaker than the next than the Canadian ones. I think the Canadian government has moved more quickly on that simply because something terrible happened there in Lac-Mégantic. So I think what people should be scared of is that the United States government is simply waiting for another Lac-Mégantic to happen here before they move quickly to do something about it. And so we’ve dodged three bullets through those towns I’ve talked about, and it’s only a matter of time, if nothing happens, until potentially another Lac-Mégantic can happen here at home.
DESVARIEUX: Keith, I’ll let you have the final world word just really quickly. What do you guys have planned ahead for trying to get more regulation in place?
STEWART: So we’re going to continue–I mean, I think the federal government here is–they’re seeing this primarily as a public relations problem rather than a public safety problem. I think they’re also kind of hoping that, you know, as memory begins to fade post Lac-Mégantic, that, you know, some of this pressure will come off. And what we’ve seen in Canada is, you know, sometimes the rule-making processes we can move faster because of the way our system works than in the U.S. But also it means the government has a lot more leeway to just kind of, like, stop things later on.
So we’re going to make sure that we keep the pressure up. We’re continuing to sort of dig for the information that we find, because, you know, the government, I think, originally was kind of hoping to sort of, and the industry to sort of say, like, this was, you know, a tragedy, human error, no one could have foreseen this happening, no one could have stopped it. And I think what we’ve managed to sort of demonstrate, through, you know, a bunch of different people, research that actually this was entirely predictable–in fact, it had been predicted–and the government, you know, had been warned that they needed to take action, and they simply didn’t because they were more interested in keeping oil transportation costs low than protecting communities.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Keith Stewart and Steve Horn, thank you very much for that very interesting analysis.
HORN: Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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