Officials were surprised by the explosions because they were unaware that such volatile, unconventional crude was being carried by the train.François Laplante-Delagrave/AFP/Getty Images
The oil carried by a freight train that derailed and exploded in Quebec this year has been mislabeled and was more dangerous than previously known, Canadian officials said Wednesday, raising questions about the safety of increasing rail transport of crude oil products from shale and tar sands oil in the U.S. and Canada.
Forty-seven people were killed in the July disaster when the unattended train rolled away and derailed in the town of Lac-Megantic, near the Maine border. Several of the oil cars exploded, destroying the downtown area.
The train's shipment of North Dakota oil was mislabeled as a "Group 3" flammable liquid, when it should have been given a more explosive "Group 2" classification, the Canadian transportation safety board's chief investigator, Donald Ross, said.
Safety regulations for the transport of crude oil differ depending upon the type of oil and its flashpoint -- the lowest temperature at which it will ignite. Officials initially said they were surprised by the disaster because they thought the oil being transported was unlikely to ignite.
The announcement follows a report on the environmental effects of the disaster released last month by Quebec group La Societe pour Vaincre la Pollution (SVP), which showed extremely elevated levels of toxic chemicals and carcinogens in the area around the crash site. It also showed significant amounts of oil sludge at the bottom of nearby Chaudiere River and the lake the town is named after.
“These events are a wake-up call in the entire issue of our reliance on toxic fossil fuels,” SVP co-President Daniel Green said. “There is a human and environmental cost of extracting, transporting, refining and using them.”
Green told Al Jazeera that if routine sampling of the oil had been carried out, they would have known that this crude was much more explosive and ignitable than regular crude oil. "If people did their jobs, this would have been prevented," he said.
Green added that the mislabeled cargo could have resulted in more deaths and injuries, because first responders based their evacuation decisions on the type of oil involved.
A statement from the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said shippers and rail carriers found to be out of compliance with hazardous materials regulations could be fined or placed out of service.
Green said tanker cars are designed depending on what is being transported in them. Extremely volatile propane would be transported in a tanker car that is specifically designed to withstand derailment and high temperatures.
U.S. inspection teams have been conducting spot safety checks of rail shipments of crude from the booming Bakken oil region since the disaster. The Bakken region underlies portions of Montana and North Dakota in the U.S., and Saskatchewan and Manitoba in Canada, and is where the unconventional crude that exploded in Lac Megantic originated.
Green said that compounds from the oil can seep into the foundations of buildings in the contaminated area and begin evaporating -- and the vapor alone can pose a risk to human health.
Green said SVP found Benzopyrene, a carcinogen which can cause lung cancer if inhaled, in extremely high levels at the crash site. Benzene, another harmful pollutant found there, is associated with childhood leukemia.
SVP’s study, released on August 14, based on samples and tests on plants, water and soil extracted from the area, found extremely high levels of many types of chemicals. The study states that carcinogens, arsenic and oils were found at thousands of times the allowed maximum.
The NGO said that unless the pollutants are contained in the next three months, annual ice break up and seasonal flooding will relocate toxins downstream – which could contaminate the river, drinking water and agricultural land.
Green said SVP filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get the measurements the government took from the area, but the government did not release information dealing with the concentration of toxins close to where the explosions occurred.
“They may be trying to avoid a panic, but these people have lived through hell and nothing will panic them now,” Green said. “There cannot be worse news than losing someone … and Lac Megantic is a small community, almost everyone knew someone who died in the disaster.”
The disaster raised questions about the increasing transport of oil by rail in the U.S. and Canada.
Much of that increase is from oil produced in the Bakken region. The train that crashed was carrying oil from North Dakota to a refinery in New Brunswick, Canada.
The train was operated by a U.S. company, the Montreal, Main and Atlantic Railway, but safety investigator Ross said New Brunswick's Irving Oil co. is responsible for the labels because it imported the goods.
In the first half of this year, U.S. railroads moved 178,000 carloads of crude oil. That's double the number during the same period last year and 33 times more than during the same period in 2009. The Railway Association of Canada estimates that as many as 140,000 carloads of crude oil will be shipped on Canada's tracks this year, up from 500 carloads in 2009.
With Al Jazeera and the AFP. With additional reporting by Renee Lewis.