Saturday, December 7, 2013
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Cleanup continues at the scene of the Lac-Megantic, Quebec, runaway oil train derailment and explosion on Tuesday. Investigators looking for the cause of the fiery oil train derailment are zeroing in on whether an earlier blaze on the same train may have set off a chain of events that led to the explosions that killed at least 13 people.
Searchers dig through the rubble for victims of the inferno in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Monday.
The crash has brought attention to some rail companies' practice of running trains with a single engineer. Montreal, Maine & Atlantic was one of the first to reduce the number of engineers on trains, several years ago, as it struggled with financial losses during the recession.
Some residents in Lac-Megantic told the Toronto Star that they saw propane tankers in the rail yard where the train derailed. But an investigator for the Canadian Transportation Board told the media that he had not heard the derailed cars may have struck a propane tanker.
The crash occurred about 10 miles from the Maine border in Franklin County.
The train had five engines, a buffer car and 72 tank cars loaded with crude oil from North Dakota. Its regular route would have taken it through northern Maine to an Irving Oil refinery in New Brunswick. Montreal, Maine & Atlantic does not have rail lines through the southern part of Maine.
Quebec provincial police sent more than 100 officers to the scene to determine whether the crash should be considered a criminal investigation. They have not ruled out a crime.
"We're going to take any hypothesis into account on why the train derailed," said Sgt. Gregory Gomez of the Quebec provincial police. "We're trying to determine, first, is there any criminal element. That determines the direction of our investigation."
Investigators are focusing in part on the fire that broke out on the lead locomotive at 11:30 p.m. Friday, an hour before the crash. Firefighters from Lac-Megantic doused the fire, shutting down the locomotive in the process.
Fire Chief Patrick Lambert told the National Post of Canada that he left the engine with two railroad employees about an hour before the crash.
Company officials and rail experts have said that shutting down power to the locomotive might have disengaged its brakes, which require power to maintain air pressure.
But that doesn't explain why brakes on the rail cars, which automatically deploy when there is no power to the air pressure system, did not hold the train in place. And it doesn't explain why the manual brakes, which are customarily activated on some of the rail cars when a train is left in a rail yard, did not keep it stationary.
"Theoretically, it shouldn't have moved," said Burkholder.
Company officials have said that, before the small fire, the train's engineer "tied down" the train around 11:25 p.m. Friday, then went to a nearby hotel to sleep, leaving the train unattended for the next crew. Transportation safety laws prohibit engineers from driving a train more than 12 hours at a time.
It's routine and not against regulations to leave a train running unattended for a new crew, said Burkholder.
The United States and Canada have requirements outlining the use of hand brakes when a train is left, although many railroads have policies that may exceed those minimum standards. The requirements call for setting enough brakes to ensure that the train can't move.
An increase in crude oil shipments is helping the freight industry. Trains carrying crude oil have been traversing Maine almost daily. Another 80 to 100 cars of oil were behind the train that crashed, waiting in Montreal to come east, Burkholder said.
The increased traffic is spurring protests by environmental groups. The groups object to the transportation of oil -- particularly oil from shale in western Canada, called tar sands oil -- through Maine by rail, saying it is not safe.
Environmental groups also protest the use of pipelines to transport tar sands oil and say continued reliance on fossil fuels is having an irreversible impact on the Earth's climate.
David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:
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Wreckage is strewn through the downtown core in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Monday, July 8, 2013, after a train derailed, igniting tanker cars carrying crude oil early Saturday. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Ryan Remiorz)
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The wreckage of a train is pictured after explosion in Lac Megantic