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

Canadian authorities have opened a criminal investigation into the train derailment Saturday that caused an explosion and fire that killed at least 15 people and destroyed much of the center of Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

Investigators have "discovered elements" that have prompted a criminal probe, Quebec police inspector Michel Forget said at a news briefing Tuesday. He did not give details, but he ruled out terrorism.

Forget said police are more likely exploring the possibility of criminal negligence, The Associated Press reported.

Ed Burkhardt, chairman of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, which owns the train, told the Montreal Gazette on Monday that he believes someone tampered with it.

"We have evidence of this," said Burkhardt, who is also president of Rail World Inc., the parent company of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic. "But this is an item that needs further investigation. We need to talk to some people we believe to have knowledge of this."

Burkhardt said he doesn't believe the event was malicious or an act of terrorism.

The continuing search for dozens of people who remain missing in Lac-Megantic, near the border of Maine's Franklin County, was hampered by the blackened, twisted metal and escaping gas in the area where the explosion occurred before dawn Saturday.

The confirmed death toll was 15 late Tuesday night, with dozens more bodies feared buried in the ruins.

Joe McGonigle, a vice president for Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, based in Hermon, Maine, said Tuesday that the fire was not caused by the runaway train crashing into propane tank cars in the railyard in the center of town, as some residents of Lac-Megantic said.

"I can confirm there were no propane tank cars in the area," said McGonigle.

He said, however, that he did not know if propane tanks might have been elsewhere in the area. "We don't know if there were propane tanks next to a building," he said.

MAINE MAY EXAMINE SHIPMENTS

Maine officials are looking at whether a similar disaster could happen here, and how prepared emergency responders would be if it did.

On Tuesday night, the Maine House approved an order directing the state to study the transportation of hazardous materials.

The state would examine and issue a report on the shipment of materials such as oil in Maine, including recommendations for legislation that could prevent disasters.

The train that crashed was hauling 72 rail cars loaded with 2 million gallons of highly flammable light crude oil from North Dakota across Maine to a refinery in New Brunswick.

Railroads are not required to notify local officials about the cargo that trains haul or that may be stored temporarily in communities.

"Given the magnitude of this tragedy, we must do all that we can to prevent another disaster like this from taking place," said House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, who sponsored the bill. "Given the exponential growth in oil transport through our state, this accident could just as easily have taken place in a Maine town or city."

The Senate was still considering the measure late Tuesday night.

The governor issued an executive order Tuesday for the state Department of Transportation to collect information from the Federal Railroad Administration concerning safety protocols throughout Maine's rail system.

About 2,000 rail cars, each carrying 30,000 gallons of oil, traverse the state each month, said Mark Hyland, operations and response director for the Maine Emergency Management Agency.

"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.

"We have about 16 through freights through the state of Maine a day and 20 local trains that work throughout the state," she said.

Pan Am and the St. Lawrence & Atlantic Railroad account for the majority of rail traffic in Greater Portland.

DEPARTMENTS TRAIN FOR OIL FIRES

Fire officials in Portland and South Portland say they train extensively for large oil fires and have advanced equipment that is not available in a small town like Lac-Megantic.

James Budway, emergency management director for Cumberland County, said fire departments participated in at least two trainings last year for railroad emergencies.

"Trains certainly have a huge capacity for carrying fuel or whatever the substances are, a lot more than a truck," Budway said. "That's why Portland and South Portland are so involved in what goes on at Rigby Yard."

Individual fire departments have conducted training exercises in cooperation with specific railroad companies.

The types of substances that the railroads carry vary widely.

The volume of oil and other commodities on the Pan Am railroad fluctuates from day to day, Scarano said, and oil is a relatively new commodity in the past year and a half.

"We occasionally had maybe an oil car here and there, but not as far as a dedicated train," she said.

Scarano cited industry statistics that 1.8 million carloads of hazardous materials were delivered by rail last year nationwide, and 99.99 percent were completed with no materials spilled.

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

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