Canadian train derailment highlights debate over crude oil transportation

Accident in Alberta is the latest in a series of derailments involving train cars carrying flammable liquids

A tanker train carrying flammables after it derailed in Gainford, Alberta.
Handout/Royal Canadian Mounted Police/AP

A train carrying crude oil and liquefied petroleum gas derailed and caught fire in western Canada Saturday, raising more questions about rail safety that became a major issue after a runaway oil train derailed in a Quebec town in July, triggering deadly explosions.

Saturday's accident, just outside the settlement of Gainford, Alberta, caused no injuries, and emergency responders said they were opting to let the fire burn itself out rather than approach the blaze.

The 134-car mixed-freight train, operated by Canadian National Railway (CN), was en route to Vancouver, on the Pacific Coast, from Alberta's capital, Edmonton, at the time of the accident.

CN chief operating officer Jim Vena said 13 of the train's cars had derailed. Three of the derailed cars, which were carrying liquid petroleum gas, caught fire. Others carrying crude oil had not leaked or caught fire, he said.

"CN will clean this up, remediate any damage," Vena told an evening news conference, noting that both the track and the train had been inspected in the last few days. It was too early to say what caused the accident, he said.

Rail safety has become a central issue in Canada since the July disaster in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, when a runaway train carrying crude oil exploded in the center of the lakeside town, killing 47 people.

But in contrast to Lac-Megantic, where the explosions razed dozens of buildings, pictures from near Gainford showed Saturday's fire was burning alongside a road in open country, surrounded mostly by fields and forests.

Still, Gainford residents were asked to evacuate because of the risk of another explosion, and Canada's Transportation Safety Board (TSB) said they should remain away from the site as long as needed — up to 72 hours. The main east-west highway traversing central Alberta was also closed.

Gainford, some 50 miles from Edmonton, has a population of just over 100 people.

'The new normal'

A key focus in the rail-safety debate is the booming volume of crude-oil shipments by rail as pipelines fill to capacity and producers seek other ways to get their oil to refineries.

Weekly figures from the Association of American Railroads, which do not distinguish between shipments of refined fuel and crude oil, showed 6,937 rail cars were loaded with petroleum and petroleum products in Canada in the week ended Oct. 12, up 13 percent from the same week in 2012. That is roughly equivalent to 594,600 barrels per day.

The growth shows no sign of slowing, with dedicated crude-by-rail terminals able to handle about 550,000 barrels per day due to be operational in western Canada by the end of 2014.

Critics say the rush to use rail to transport crude and sidestep pipeline bottlenecks means safety is being overlooked, raising the risk of more derailments.

"This is becoming the new normal, as we have movements of crude by rail skyrocketing at a time when the safety standards have not kept up," said Keith Stewart, climate and energy campaign coordinator at environmental-activist group Greenpeace.

"We have train cars which were never designed for dealing with these kind of hazardous and explosive products," he said.

Concern has centered on the older DOT-111 tank cars, which were involved in the Lac-Megantic crash and lack safety features like twin hulls and extra strengthening.

Saturday's derailment came days after a CN train carrying anhydrous ammonia derailed in Sexsmith, Alberta. On Sept. 25 near the town of Landis, in the prairie province of Saskatchewan, another CN freight train derailed, with 17 cars going off the track and one of them leaking lubrication oil.

But Vena said that even with the latest derailment, CN's safety record was running at the same rate as last year, which was the company's safest year to date.

"We have come a long way to improve safety, and we are going further," he said, promising to work closely with the local authorities and with the TSB, which has sent a team of investigators to the crash site.

On Thursday the Canadian government imposed new regulations requiring tests to be conducted on crude oil before it is transported in or imported into Canada. In the Lac-Megantic crash, inspectors determined that the oil the train carried was more explosive than labeled.


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