July 12, 2013

Bill Nemitz: A disaster of our own seems inevitable

If an unsafe tank car carrying crude oil along Maine's rail lines were to crash, we'd have an environmental catastrophe on our hands.

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"What I proposed was simply a review by the (Legislature's) Transportation Committee," Berry said. "I want them to look at the environmental and public-safety components of all this."

Gov. Paul LePage, much to his credit, has ordered the Maine Department of Transportation to obtain all safety and inspection reports on Maine's railroads from the Federal Railroad Administration, and "utilize information as it becomes available on the cause of the Quebec train derailment to reassess the safety of Maine's rail infrastructure and take appropriate action to mitigate any safety concerns."

"This is us doing some data mining with the Federal Railroad Administration," said Ted Talbot, spokesman for the Department of Transportation. Much like the federally regulated trucking industry, he noted, Maine's railroads operate each day without the state knowing "what they're hauling, when they haul it or their destinations."

That said, Talbot cautioned, "any and all discussion on changing the process begins and ends with the federal government."

Thus we can only sit with crossed fingers as those long lines of oil-laden DOT-111s, unsafe as they are, snake their way through Maine's most populated and environmentally precious areas.

And while we're on the subject of federal oversight, we can only smack our foreheads over the fact that the feds have one -- and only one -- inspector keeping an eye on the state's 1,100 miles of railroad.

Finally, we have the Maine DEP, which began meeting with railroad representatives in November -- a full year after the railroads got into the crude-oil transportation business in a big way -- to talk potential disasters.

Which brings us back to postcard-perfect Moosehead Lake, now at the height of its summer tourist season. What would happen if a train full of oil suddenly went off the tracks and began spewing countless gallons of crude directly into Maine's largest body of fresh water?

"Obviously, the first responders would go from the local fire department and then we would be called," replied DEP spokeswoman Jessamine Logan. "We have booming equipment in Portland, Augusta and Bangor."

It would take two hours or more to get that equipment to Moosehead from Augusta or Bangor, which is at least better than the three-hour drive from Portland.

"That is why we developed the work groups," noted Logan. "To find out if and where we need to stage equipment."

Leaving only the question of when.

 Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at bnemitz@pressherald.com

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