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Federal officials in the US have raised concerns about the type of tanker car that erupted in Lac Megantic since at least 1991.  Photo: Brian Mann
Federal officials in the US have raised concerns about the type of tanker car that erupted in Lac Megantic since at least 1991. Photo: Brian Mann

Train tanker cars that exploded in Lac Megantic "inadequate"

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It's been nearly three months since an American-operated tanker train derailed and exploded in the town of Lac Megantic in eastern Quebec. The Montreal-Maine and Atlantic train was carrying a cargo of crude oil and other chemicals from oil fields in North Dakota. The massive explosions that followed killed forty-seven people.

In the weeks after the disaster, it has become clear that the clean-up and recovery effort in Lac-Megantic will be far more costly and challenging than once believed. Also, investigators in the US and Canada now acknowledge that there were deep concerns about the safety of the tanker cars used by the railroad.

Those fears first surfaced decades before this deadly accident occurred. Brian Mann has our special report.

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The inadequacy of the protection provided by DOT-111A tank cars for certain dangerous products has been evident for many years
This report was produced in partnership with NPR.

Robert Mercier walks down Lac-Megantic’s abandoned main street.  It’s a brilliant fall day.  A year ago, he says, this block would have been busy with street restaurants and tourist shops.  

Now it’s a ghost town.

"It’s been left for weeks.  Everybody quit so fast, the beer, the sunglass, the cell phone was staying there."  Mercier, who heads Lac Megantic's city environment department, points up the street.  "The explosion was right there – poof!"

On this day, city officials are allowing residents to come downtown one last time. 

They’re retrieving personal possessions – loading computers, mementos, furniture onto U-haul trucks – before the area is cordoned off for at least a year.

Parts of the city were flattened by the blast.  But Mercier says much of the rest of Lac Megantic’s downtown is saturated with heavy metals and crude oil that flowed into the ground. 

"They are pumping here, for not to contaminate again – all these manholes was on fire.  Big flames in there, yeah," he recalled.

When Mercier talks about that night in July when forty-seven people died, he still seems off-balance, a little dazed.  He says the first blast erupted about four hundred feet from his own apartment.

Lac-Megantic burning on the first day after the rail car derailment sent fireballs and streams of burning oil coursing through the Quebec village. Photo: Surete du Quebec
Lac-Megantic burning on the first day after the rail car derailment sent fireballs and streams of burning oil coursing through the Quebec village. Photo: Surete du Quebec
"We didn’t know what it was – volcano, meteorite, what is that?  Once you don’t know, you’re just afraid.  You just run.  You run!"

Mercier grew up here.  He says the weeks since that night have been a blur of crisis management.  Burning crude oil literally flowed through Lac-Megantic’s water and sewer system.

To give me a sense for the scope of the recovery effort, he takes me back to his office.

"This is the only building functional in the zone."

Upstairs in a silent, echoing office complex, Mercier spreads a map on a desk.  It’ s marked with the site of the train derailment, with red lines flowing outward — the path of the burning oil.

Robert Mercier is head of environment services for Lac-Megantic.  He says the burning oil flowed like lava through his community, destroying homes and sending gouts of flame through the sewer system. Photo: Brian Mann
Robert Mercier is head of environment services for Lac-Megantic. He says the burning oil flowed like lava through his community, destroying homes and sending gouts of flame through the sewer system. Photo: Brian Mann
"So the petroleum mostly flew on the ground, on this side of the lake.  So the lake was burning for a big part.  That was something to see.  You can see here, all the landscape in this area is destroyed.  Because the lava – all the petroleum came here, all these houses are gone  now.   Nothing there, nothing there.  All this is gone."

A ten minute drive away from Mercier’s office, a fleet of huge trucks and backhoes is laying the foundation for an entirely new downtown – a new business district that will replace what’s been destroyed or contaminated.

So far, government officials have pledged roughly $120 million for the rebuilding effort – but no one’s sure how much it will all cost and already the province of Quebec and the national government in Ottawa are quibbling over how much to spend.

Caught up in the turmoil are people like Guy Boulet, who owns a furniture store just outside the red zone.  Back in July, right after the explosion, Boulet was still grappling with the loss of his sister Marie France.

"She owned a small business right downtown.  Sometimes – it boils inside."

Weeks later, Boulet sits behind the counter in his shop.  He seems more calm now, but he looks exhausted.  After a long day spent making deliveries, his family is preparing for his sister’s memorial.

"Day after day, it’s a little bit better," Boulet says.  The family is planning "a simple ceremony right at the church."

The Catholic church sits at the edge of the contamination zone.   From the steps, you can see the rubble where his sister’s business used to stand. 

Boulet says people here are resigned to the idea that the healing process will take a long time.

"We have to be really patient.  Nobody knows exactly how long it will be to remove the petrol from the ground – so that’s why they try to rebuild the new downtown.  We hope nobody forgets, you know, because we will need help.  We will need help.  Because a large part of the community is involved.  Fifty percent have a relation with someone dead and it will be hard for the next winter.”

Adding to the pain and the anger is the fact that a growing number of experts on both sides of the US-Canada border say this disaster was avoidable.

Robert Mercier, Lac-Megantic’s environment officer, says officials here knew for years that there were serious safety concerns with the railroad and its growing shipments of hazardous oils and chemicals.

"We were very worried about the conditions of the rail – we were talking about that many times.  It was a great concern about the train and the condition of the rail and all the tanks that were passing every day.

Since July, investigators in the US and Canada have focused on a wide range of issues – from the staffing level of these big industrial trains to the condition of the tracks to new evidence that the hazardous cargo of this train was mislabeled.

But much of the scrutiny has fallen on the type of tanker car that erupted that day – tankers known in the industry as DOT -111A’s. 

It turns out there have been serious fears about their safety for decades. 

In 1991, the US National Transportation Safety Board issued a report with a sharply-worded warning:

“The inadequacy of the protection provided by DOT-111A tank cars for certain dangerous products has been evident for many years in accidents investigated by the Safety Board," it concluded.

Lloyd Burton is a professor at the University of Colorado who studies rail transport of hazardous materials.  He says this type of tanker car just wasn’t designed to carry crude oil and dangerous chemicals.

"It’s rigid, it’s prone to derailment, and when it dereails because of the coupling design, they’re prone to puncgture.  There are people off the record who’ve said that those cars shouldn’t be carrying anything other than molasses."

Despite those fears, DOT-111A's still make up more than two third of the tanker car stock in the US and Canada. 

They’re carrying more and more crude oil and volatile chemicals from North America’s booming energy industry.  Burton says he hopes that will change.

"There is something about the magnitude of the Lac-Megantic tradegy that I think may have tipped the scales a little.  And may have caused them to announced publicloy that we have a serious problem here and the status quo is no longer acceptable."

In the past, railroad and oil executives have resisted pressure to replace or retrofit North America’s rail tanker fleet. 

But speaking last month, Hunter Harrison, head of Canadian Pacific Railway, said he too thinks Lac Megantic has shifted the debate about this type of tanker car for good. 

Harrison spoke on the Business News Network.

Top rail executive Hunter Harrison says the DOT-111a tanker car will be phased out for hazardous cargoes.  Photo: Canadian Railway
Top rail executive Hunter Harrison says the DOT-111a tanker car will be phased out for hazardous cargoes. Photo: Canadian Railway
"Well I think they’ll be phased out as far as dangerous commodities.  We’re much more — rightfully so — sensitive about the environment today than we were when these cars were built.  Shame on us as society.  I think we’ve discovered some additional weaknesses in the car that can be improved.  And I hope and think that you will see through all the various parties who are playing a part in this, those cars [will be] fixed."

The railroad at the center of this disaster, the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic, has filed for banktruptcy and is now in the process of being sold. 

No criminal charges have yet been filed against anyone involved in the Lac Megantic derailment.

The US and Canada did implement emergency rules designed to boost tanker train safety in the short term. 

Last month, the US Department of Transportation started a new rule-making process that could force the railroad industry to replace or retrofit its fleet of tanker cars.

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