Friday, April 25, 2014
With pipelines running at capacity and new oil fields operating beyond their reach, oil companies are moving ever-increasing quantities of crude oil by rail. This chart shows quarterly shipment totals, by rail carload, from 2009 through the first quarter of 2013.
SOURCE: Association of American Railroads
Federal officials agreed Friday to inspect the Maine tracks of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, less than one week after a runaway train operating on the company's tracks derailed and sparked an explosion that killed dozens in a Quebec tourist town.
In this July 6 photo, flames and smoke rise from railway cars that were carrying crude oil after derailing in downtown Lac Megantic, Quebec, Canada, devastating the downtown and killing dozens. Federal officials agreed Friday, July 12, 2013 to inspect the Maine tracks of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, less than one week after a runaway train operating on the company's tracks derailed and sparked the deadly explosion. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson)
Officials with the Federal Railroad Administration notified members of Maine's congressional delegation Friday that they will inspect MMA's tracks in the state next week, according to delegation staffers.
Maine Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree had requested the inspection in a letter sent Thursday to federal transportation officials as the Canadian investigation continued into the disaster which is believed to have killed at least 50 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.
Preliminary reports have suggested that the accident may have been caused when brakes failed to hold the parked train, sending it several miles downhill into the lakeside town. But Maine officials have expressed concerns about the condition of MMA's tracks in the state.
"An event like this requires a full accounting of the vulnerabilities of existing rail infrastructure in Maine," Pingree and Michaud wrote in their letter to the heads of the Federal Railroad Administration, the National Transportation Safety Board and the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
"We all have an obligation to ensure that any safety issues are identified and dealt with quickly. This is even more important at a time when crude oil shipments through Maine are skyrocketing," they wrote.
Maine Sen. Susan Collins, meanwhile, said she raised concerns Thursday about the adequacy of the tank cars involved in the Lac-Megantic incident during a conversation with NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman. Those cars could become one of the major policy discussions in Washington in response to the incident just across Maine's border.
But nearly a week after Canada's largest rail disaster in more than a century, many lawmakers on Capitol Hill and Obama administration officials are taking a more cautious, wait-and-see approach to an issue with potentially significant economic and safety implications on this side of the border.
"I plan to work closely with investigators to uncover the accident's cause and work to find ways to prevent this kind of disaster in the future," said Rep. Jeff Denham, the California Republican who chairs the House Transportation Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials. "Safety is of the utmost importance to the committee and our top priority moving forward."
Denham's reserved response was typical of several lawmakers approached this week about potential rail safety policy changes in response to the derailment and explosion in Lac-Megantic.
There have been no calls for congressional inquiries on railway safety or high-profile requests to probe the potential implications of the sudden shift to shipping crude oil by rail.
Likewise, U.S. National Transportation Safety Board officials said it is too early to discuss policy issues while the Transportation Safety Board of Canada investigates the incident.
And earlier this week, when White House spokesman Jay Carney was asked whether the administration would look at safety issues tied to shipping oil by rail, he replied that the administration was "closely monitoring the situation in Canada." But Carney did not address the safety question and deferred to the Canadian investigation.
"Safety is the top priority at the Federal Railroad Administration," Carney said. "The accident in Quebec Province is being investigated by Canadian authorities, and the FRA does not have jurisdiction outside of the United States."
(Continued on page 2)