Could the Lac-Mégantic oil train disaster happen in the U.S.?

The oil train fire that killed 47 people in Québec last year has some Americans fearing the same could happen here

Updated Feb. 19, 2015 – On Feb. 16, a 109-car train carrying Bakken shale crude oil from North Dakota to Virginia partially derailed near Montgomery, West Virginia, setting 19 cars ablaze – some of which burned for days. One house was destroyed and one man was hospitalized for smoke inhalation, as crews worked to keep the spilled oil out of the nearby Kanawha River and the community's water supply.

The type of rail car in the fiery West Virginia crash was the CPC-1232 – a stronger and supposedly safer model introduced a few years ago. How can we prevent more disasters like this as the amount of oil transported by rail doubles each year? On Wednesday's America Tonight, Sheila MacVicar updated her earlier reporting on the safety of rail cars transporting volatile Bakken crude.

After receiving desperate calls for help from their Canadian counterparts in Lac-Mégantic, Québec, Maine's Fire Chief Tim Pellerin and a group of volunteer firefighters made the two-hour journey to the site of an oil train fire one year ago.

The only way to describe it, Pellerin said, was "like driving into hell." The devastation was total.

“The trees were burnt, the street burnt, the park benches burnt. Everything burnt,” Pellerin remembered. “There was no sound, except for the burning rail cars and the oil.”

Forty-seven people died after a train carrying 72 tankers of North Dakota crude derailed and exploded in the middle of the small Canadian town. Many of those killed were enjoying a night of dancing in the nightclub Musi-Café when the disaster struck. The bodies of five were never found.   

Pellerin’s team battled the blaze for nearly 30 hours, helping to save some of Main Street and prevent more tankers from exploding. But long after he returned to Maine, Pellerin was haunted by one question: Could a similar disaster strike the United States?

“We're shipping millions and millions of gallons daily over the tracks, going by people's homes, local neighborhoods,” he explained. “People are sound asleep in their homes [as] these trains are rolling through at night. And nobody even realizes what's right next door to them, what could happen.”

The crude oil that devastated Lac-Mégantic originated in the Bakken shale formation deep beneath North Dakota. Thanks to advances in horizontal drilling techniques and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the state has become the largest crude oil producer in the country behind Texas. But unlike more developed oil fields around the country, North Dakota lacks a solid pipeline infrastructure to move the crude.

Now, commercial railway companies have stepped in to fill the void. They've built what amounts to a pipeline on wheels, or so-called “oil unit trains,” with more than 100 tankers that can transport up to 3 million gallons of crude at a time. In the past five years, the movement of crude oil by rail has skyrocketed 4,000 percent. And with so much oil moving by rail, the U.S. has already had some close calls. 

A troubling history

After a rail bed gave way in downtown Lynchburg, Va., this April, a train carrying 105 tankers of North Dakota crude – 31 more than the train that destroyed Lac-Mégantic – derailed in the middle of a workday. Three cars caught fire, but miraculously, no one was hurt. Lynchburg fire Chief Steve Ferguson said things could easily have been much worse. 

“I think we were very fortunate that the cards went the way they did,” he said. “Rather than over the bank and into the river, if they’d fallen the other way into this heavily populated restaurant right there, we’d have had a whole different issue on our hands.”

A fireball erupts over a December oil train derailment in Casselton, North Dakota.

The near-disaster in Lynchburg follows similar incidents in Alabama and North Dakota. Like the Lac-Mégantic disaster, those derailments and the fires that followed involved crude from the Bakken oil fields. The explosiveness, like the fireball created at a derailment in Casselton, North Dakota (pictured right), has experts concerned that the problem is with the crude itself.

The oil industry says Bakken is no different than other similar types of crude, but independent studies tell otherwise. Scott Smith, a scientist at the environmental organization Water Defense, has collected oil from the site of every recent rail accident involving Bakken crude. In the samples from the Lynchburg wreck, he found traces of acetone, a byproduct of fracking. He believes such volatile chemicals, combined with other flammable properties unique to Bakken crude, make it more prone to explosion.

Rob Davis of the Oregonian newspaper commissioned his own study of Bakken crude, after noticing a 250 percent increase in oil train traffic moving through his state over the past year.

“The analysis that we did of oil that's moving through the state shows that it is far more volatile than any gasoline that you put in your car, than any oil that moves through the country's pipeline system,” Davis explained.

His analysis found high concentrations of natural gases like butane, methane and propane dissolved in the crude. Compared with similar light crude, the differences were significant: some Bakken crude samples showed six times the amount of propane.

A Canadian government study of North Dakota crude concluded it had “a volatility comparable to that of a gasoline product.” This higher flammability could be true of all Bakken oil, the U.S. Department of Transportation warned in a January safety alert.

Davis believes oil producers are leaving the natural gas in the crude for monetary reasons. “It juices their profits a little bit to keep it in the oil,” he explained. “It's going to increase the volume that they're putting in trains and ultimately shipping to refineries here on the West Coast.”

A backlash

American railways agreed in February to reduce oil unit train speeds in large cities, but some public officials say the very design of older tanker cars is a bigger concern.

Across the river from Oregon, the explosiveness of North Dakota crude has sparked even greater concern. An average of 18 oil unit trains a week make their way along the environmentally sensitive Columbia River Gorge, through the heavily populated city of Vancouver, Washington, and on to refineries on the West Coast. If the proposed Tesoro Savage Terminal is approved, the city could see four or five additional oil unit trains every day – a specter that has sparked local backlash.

The Vancouver City Council recently passed a nearly unanimous non-binding resolution opposing any terminal that would increase the volume of Bakken crude shipments. And local citizen watchdog groups have sprung up to track the number of oil unit trains moving through Washington state.

 “I want people to know when these trains are coming through our communities so they can be prepared, “ said Matt Landon of the Vancouver Action Network, which tracks oil unit trains on Twitter. “It’s part of a risk assessment that the community needs to be involved in.”

Landon doesn’t want the public to have to wait for a notification from the railroad or the state in the case of a disaster that he believes could be catastrophic. “An oil train derailment in the Colombia River Gorge would be devastating to the local economy, to the environment, and to all the people that live along the river and depend on it for their livelihood,” he said.

While oil train traffic to the West Coast has surged, it’s the higher-volume route to East Coast refineries in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Virginia through densely populated cities that pose an even greater threat. BNSF Railway Company, just one transporter of Bakken crude, brings 27 oil unit trains through Chicago’s Cook County every week.

To use Ralph Nader's terminology, the DOT-111 tank car is unsafe at any speed.

Jim Hall

former NTSB chairman

Under pressure, U.S. railways agreed in February to reduce oil unit train speeds in large cities. But for Karen Darch, village president of the Chicago suburb of Barrington, who visited Lac-Mégantic after the disaster, the biggest concern are the tankers used to transport the crude: non-pressurized, thin-skinned DOT-111 tank cars. She calls them the Ford Pinto of rail cars, referring to the subcompact car recalled in 1978 due to concerns about its fuel tank.

“I use that analogy because anybody who remembers the Ford Pinto understood that when it was involved in an accident, there were many times that it just burst into flames and exploded and people died needlessly,” Darch said.

The DOT-111 was never designed to carry flammable material, but because of the huge cost of replacing them, tens of thousands of these older and weaker cars are being pressed into service to carry the bulk of Bakken crude. The railcar industry estimates that it would take 10 years and cost $1billion to phase in a stronger tanker.

“To use Ralph Nader's terminology, the DOT-111 tank car is unsafe at any speed,” said Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation and Safety Board. The NTSB has been sounding the alarm about the inadequacy of the DOT-111 since the 1970s. After a string of deadly disasters involving the tanker, the NTSB found in 1991 that over half will rupture or leak when they derail.

 “The fix is a stronger tank car with a full head shield, a thicker exterior skin and more protection for the attachments,” said Hall, adding that there’s only one reason the railway companies haven’t shelved the DOT-111s. “Economics. It’s the railway industry, the tank car industry. There are powerful economic interests that don’t want to go through the replacement of tank cars.”

Representatives of the railway, railcar and oil industries declined interviews for this story. 

The industry's response

In April, the Canadian government ordered 5,000 of the most dangerous tanker cars off the rails immediately, and for another 65,000 DOT-111 cars to be retrofitted or removed within three years. The U.S. Department of Transportation hasn’t taken action so decisive.

Three years ago, the Association of American Railroads adopted higher standards for tank cars transporting crude oil, and has urged the government to demand that older cars be phased out of service, or retrofitted. The railcar industry says that it will build stronger tankers once the U.S. Department of Transportation finally issues new regulations.

Matt Landon of the Vancouver Action Network in Washington state tracks oil unit trains on Twitter
America Tonight

In a Senate hearing in April, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx testified that he was unable to give an exact date on new rules for stronger tankers, but said he hoped it would be before 2015. In May, Foxx recommended but did not mandate that oil companies avoid using the DOT-111 to move Bakken crude.  

The DOT declined multiple attempts for an interview, but in a written statement a spokesman said that Foxx has “intently focused on improving the safe transportation of crude oil by rail” since he took office.

Fire Chief Pellerin was invited to testify at the same Senate hearing as Foxx. He remains convinced that fire departments across the country are not prepared for the next Lac-Mégantic.

“At some point, it's gonna happen again,” said Pellerin. “And there'll be another news story. And there'll be more fatalities, and people will feel bad. But until we fix the regulations and it's regulated, and we're proactive instead of reactive, without that people are going to keep dying.”

More from America Tonight

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter