Sunday, October 20, 2013

Canada train derailment highlights debate over crude oil transportation

Alberta Reuters

October 20, 2013 7:02AM ET

Emergency crews work a massive fire after a CN tanker train carrying flammables derailed in Gainford, Alberta.
Handout/Royal Canadian Mounted Police/AP
A train carrying crude oil and liquefied petroleum gas derailed and caught fire in Western Canada Saturday, raising more questions about rail safety that became a major issue after a runaway oil train derailed in a Quebec town in July, triggering deadly explosions.
Saturday's accident just outside the settlement of Gainford, Alberta caused no injuries, and emergency services said they were opting to let the fire burn itself out rather than approach the blaze.
The 134-car mixed freight train, operated by Canadian National Railway (CN), was on route to Vancouver, on the Pacific Coast, from Alberta's capital, Edmonton, at the time of the accident.
CN Chief Operating Officer Jim Vena said 13 of the train’s cars had derailed. Three of the derailed cars, which were carrying flammable liquid petroleum gas, caught fire. Others carrying crude oil had not leaked or caught fire, he said.
"CN will clean this up, remediate any damage," Vena told an evening news conference, noting that both the track and the train had been inspected in the last few days. It was too early to say what caused the accident, he said.
Rail safety has become a central issue in Canada since the July disaster in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, when a runaway train carrying crude oil exploded in the center of the lakeside town, killing 47 people.
But in contrast to Lac-Megantic, where the explosions razed dozens of buildings in the center of town, pictures from near Gainford showed Saturday's fire was burning alongside a road in open country, with fields and forests on either side.
Still, Gainford residents were asked to leave their homes because of the risk of another explosion, and Canada's Transportation Safety Board (TSB) said the evacuation would continue for as long as needed – up to 72 hours. The main east-west highway traversing central Alberta was also closed.
Gainford, some 50 miles from Edmonton, has a population of just over 100 people.

'The new normal'

A key focus in the rail-safety debate is the booming volumes of crude-oil shipments by rail as pipelines fill to capacity and producers seek other ways to get their oil to refineries.
Weekly figures from the Association of American Railroads, which do not distinguish between shipments of refined fuel and crude oil, showed 6,937 rail cars were loaded with petroleum and petroleum products in Canada in the week ended Oct. 12, up 13 percent from the same week in 2012. That is roughly equivalent to 594,600 barrels per day.
The growth shows no sign of slowing, with around 550,000 barrels per day of dedicated crude-by-rail terminals due to be operational in Western Canada by the end of 2014.
Critics say the rush to use rail to transport crude and sidestep pipeline bottlenecks means safety is being overlooked, raising the risk of more derailments.
"This is becoming the new normal as we have movements of crude-by-rail skyrocketing at a time when the safety standards have not kept up," said Keith Stewart, climate and energy campaign coordinator at environmental-activist group Greenpeace.
"We have train cars which were never designed for dealing with these kind of hazardous and explosive products," he said.
Past concern has centered on the older DOT111 tanker cars, such as the ones involved in the Lac-Megantic crash, which lack safety features like twin hulls or extra strengthening.
Saturday's derailment came days after a CN train carrying anhydrous ammonia derailed in Sexsmith, Alberta. On Sept. 25, another CN freight train derailed near the town of Landis, in the prairie province of Saskatchewan, sending 17 cars off the track, one of which leaked lubrication oil.
But Vena said that even with the latest derailment, CN's safety record was running at the same rate as last year, which was the company's safest year to date.
"We have come a long way to improve safety, and we are going further," he said, promising to work closely with the local authorities and with the TSB, which has sent a team of investigators to the crash site.
On Thursday, the Canadian government imposed new regulations requiring tests to be conducted on crude oil before it is transported or imported into Canada. In the Lac-Megantic crash, inspectors determined that the oil the train carried was more explosive than labeled.