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Jul08

Out of the Ashes

BY KATE KUNKEL

tankersFrom the ashes of a tragedy that has seen the destruction of a tiny Quebec, Canada town, the ongoing debate about the safety of transporting crude oil has risen yet again. But this time, it’s not fish or eagles or algae that have been killed.

This past Saturday, early in the morning, a runaway freight train pulling 73 cars, 72 of them crude oil tankers, derailed, exploding into an apocalyptic fireball in downtown Lac-Mégantic, leveling the 3 square mile (5-square-kilometre) central district. Five people are confirmed dead; around 40 people are missing, most likely vaporized in the fireball that erupted into the quiet night.

Many of those left behind are now homeless; none of them will ever be able to sleep through a train whistle again.

The oil that was on this train was from Dakota’s Bakken oil region. This terrible accident could have just as easily happened on the very same land that is the focus of so much protest against the Keystone XL pipeline.

This tragedy has brought attention, in Canada, at least, to the dangers of transporting crude oil by train. Because it has been done for so long, many have become complacent about its potential for tragedy. While lawyers and activists and politicians argue about the potential environmental damage from a pipeline spill, thousands more tankers roll through the countryside on both sides of the border because pipeline or no, that oil has to get to refineries.

Recent estimates from the Canadian Railway Association estimate that up to 140,000 carloads of crude will be transported by rail in Canada this year. In 2009, only 500 carloads were transported by Canadian rail. These trains run through populated areas, across streams and through pristine wilderness. If the pipelines remain in limbo, many more trains will cross these lands.

There is no doubt that every safety procedure and system in place on the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway and every other railway transporting crude will be investigated for the foreseeable future. The bottom line is, though, that much of the system is operating with antiquated equipment on aging infrastructure. At least Keystone XL and other new pipelines would have the latest safety systems including state of the art valves and controls. No, they are not failsafe, but I just don’t see how they could be as dangerous as tankers on rails.

Out of the ashes of this terrible tragedy will hopefully come an intelligent conversation about how oil is going to safely get from Point A to Point B. If that doesn’t happen, then more tragedies will occur, and more lives will be lost. Enough with the politics and postulating.

Kate Kunkel is Senior Editor of VALVE Magazine. Contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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