July 10, 2013

Signs of a criminal act in Canada train explosion

Investigators consider that and other possible causes of a train crash that left at least 15 dead and dozens missing.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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"It's a dramatic increase from what we saw even two years ago," he said. "We're talking with (the Maine Department of Environmental Protection) about additional planning on a local basis for rail lines dealing with oil."

Also, Hyland, said, "We're making sure fire departments are aware of the hazards involved and that they prepare" for possible fires or leaks of hazardous liquids.

WERE TRAIN'S BRAKES DISABLED?

The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train was parked near Lac-Megantic late Friday night as the engineer completed his 12-hour day. The train was left unattended, with one engine running, for the crew that would arrive early Saturday morning.

Engineers are supposed to activate the locomotive brakes and the manual brakes on enough cars to prevent the train from moving, taking into account its weight and the incline of the track where it is parked.

Canadian regulations require engineers to put a train in gear and attempt to move it to confirm that the brakes are set and adequate.

However, a fire broke out on the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train about an hour before it rolled down and incline and into the town at close to 60 mph.

Firefighters shut down the locomotive while they battled the engine fire. Company officials have said that may have disabled the engine's brakes.

Burkhardt, chairman of the railway, told The Globe and Mail of Toronto on Monday that firefighters who responded to the blaze on the train were to blame for the runaway. "They went out there by themselves, shut the engine off, doused the fire," he said.

It's not clear why the brakes on the rail cars didn't hold, though officials are exploring the possibility of tampering.

PREPARING FOR MAINE EMERGENCY

In general, crude oil is difficult to ignite and not particularly explosive. But unlike heavy crude oil, the light Bakken crude that the train was transporting is extremely flammable.

"In training, we heard from Irving (Oil) it was a very lightweight crude; you could probably burn it in your car -- very close to gasoline, and didn't need a lot of refining," Hyland said.

He said state emergency planners have trained for major oil fires and have pre-positioned fire-suppressing foam around the state.

However, he said, it would be difficult to prepare statewide for a fire of the magnitude that hit Lac-Megantic.

"This was a pretty dramatic incident. Certainly, professional firefighters that were on the scene, guys with 30 years experience, said it was the worst they've ever seen," he said.

HAZARDOUS TRAIN CARGO COMMON

The Rigby Yard in South Portland is a hub of freight activity in southern Maine, with oil and other hazardous materials coming into and out of Portland and South Portland every day.

The fire department in each city has an idea of what is being transported, based on the materials used in Maine manufacturing. But while businesses must report any dangerous chemicals they store on a fixed site, materials in transit -- whether by rail or truck -- need not be reported to the government.

"They're federally regulated," said South Portland Deputy Fire Chief Miles Haskell. "Because of that, they keep pretty close to the cuff what they're transporting on rail. They don't want anybody targeting anything they could be transporting."

Cynthia Scarano, a spokeswoman for Pan Am Railways, which has lines through southern Maine, said Pan Am works with communities on their emergency response.

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