A spate of crude-oil carrying train derailments has turned the Canadian oil industry’s attention on rail transportation methods, raising enormous public and environmental safety concerns. Now, in the wake of a deadly train derailment in Quebec, police have launched an official investigation into the circumstances surrounding the recent crash and subsequent inferno that caused the death of at least fifteen people.
The tragedy occurred in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, and the whole of the city’s downtown district is now being treated as a crime scene. Thirty buildings were burned to the ground in the resulting blaze, and investigators fear at least three dozen bodies may be awaiting discovery beyond the fifteen confirmed dead.
The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train broke loose from its safety systems and raced downhill for seven miles before jumping the rails in Lac-Megantic. Only one of its seventy-three cars wasn’t transporting oil, and the crash caused at least five cars to explode. There was no chance for rail dispatchers to warn anyone of the runaway train, because it happened so quickly and proper warning systems were not in place on the secondary line.
2,000 of the town’s 6,000 residents were forced to evacuate their homes, and efforts have been ongoing to keep the spilled oil from polluting the St. Lawrence River, a major source for the province’s water supply.
Initial thoughts of terrorism have been discarded by investigators so far, but the search for answers and causes is still underway. The debate is now also on to decide who takes the blame for this terrible accident. Edward Burkhart, president and CEO of Rail World, Inc., pointed a finger at firefighters who had extinguished an earlier fire on the same train. Just a few hours before the crash, the same train had caught fire and been shut down—and Burkhart claimed firefighters may have disabled the brakes in the process. He certainly said the rail company had a partial responsibility for the tragedy, but would not accept full responsibility.
In response, Nantes Chief Fire Chief Patrick Lambert defended the firemen on the scene, saying they were told the train was secure and the fire put out, with the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway company approving all procedures.
No answers are forthcoming, but already people are pointing to the MMA’s spotty safety record, with at least 34 train derailments reported since 2003. Whatever the cause of the accident, it only adds fuel to the raging debate on crude oil transportation by rail as Canada continues to try and funnel oil production to foreign markets.