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A photo from a National Transportation Safety Board powerpoint from 2012 shows how DOT-111 tankers can puncture. Photo: NTSB.
A photo from a National Transportation Safety Board powerpoint from 2012 shows how DOT-111 tankers can puncture. Photo: NTSB.

How rail safety became a key issue in the energy policy debate

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Much of the oil arriving at the Port of Albany passes first through the North Country, carried on rail tanker cars through communities in the St. Lawrence and Champlain valleys.

We've been keeping a close watch on this story since last summer, when Brian Mann reported on the rail tanker disaster in Quebec that left more than 40 people dead.

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Editor's note:  This transcript has been expanded to include a portion of the conversation involving the rail transporation industry and its call for new standards for tanker cars.

Martha Foley: Brian, first, this environmental piece of the train shipment story is kind of new; most of the coverage so far has focused on public safety with these cars and the human risk.

Brian Mann: That's right. Obviously, the horror of that series of explosions in Lac Megantic frightened a lot of people and raised awareness in the US and in Canada that these shipments are passing through a lot of neighborhoods, including ours here in the North Country. 

But behind the scenes, this environment piece has been a growing concern for officials. It turns out this type of Bakken crude oil that's being shipped from the American Midwest, and the tar sands oil from Alberta has a lot of nasty gunk in it: arsenic, heavy metals, mercury. So much gunk that a big part of the village of Lac Megantic has been permanently evacuated, it's just too contaminated for people to go back and live there. 

MF: I should say that David Sommerstein, whose done a lot of our reporting on this story, is working on an in-depth report now on how local responders might deal with a rail tanker spill in a place like the Champlain Valley, where the train tracks are located right next to Lake Champlain.  We'll hear that report in the next couple of weeks.

Brian, give us a quick update on the situation in Lac Megantic.

BM: Work continues there to basically rebuild the community around a new downtown area. They're still really in the early stages of recovery and rebuilding. It's interesting—last month, the town's mayor, Colette Roy-Laroche, traveled to Washington DC to lobby the US Congress to make changes to rail safety rules. The community has really emerged as kind of a symbol but also an actual leader on this issue. They paid a horrible price—47 people dead—and they really want to see changes.

MF: A lot of the scrutiny has fallen on these DOT-111 rail tanker cars. You first reported last year that these tanker cars were first declared unsafe for carrying hazardous materials in the 1990s, but they're still in common use. In fact, that's what we see most commonly rolling past on our tracks here in the North Country. Why are these tankers still in use and is a change likely?

BM: The short version is that these rail tankers (which one expert compared to giant Pepsi cans on wheels) are expensive to replace, and better-designed tankers are more expensive. So the oil industry and the rail transport industry have lobbied hard against making changes. And the federal government in this age of deregulation has really moved slowly to force any change. Even now, after Lac Megantic, the US Department of Transportation has been moving slowly, gathering even more input and public comment, despite the fact that we've known that these cars are unsafe for decades. Last month, members of the US Senate really blasted the Obama administration for moving so slowly on this. And on All Things Considered last night we heard from people in the rail transportation industry - they say they're impatient for new standards to be published so that they know exactly what kind of new cars to build. So we'll see if real reforms happen.

MF: Finally, Brian, kind of a cool thing. The Society of Professional Journalists—one of our big national organization—has honored you and David Sommerstein for coverage of this rail safety issue over the last year with a Public Service Award. Congratulations.

BM: Yeah, this has been a remarkable project, with David taking the lead on a lot of the reporting, me working on parts of it for us and with NPR. And it is kind of cool that we contributed to a really factual re-examination of the safety of these tankers. We know that some of our reporting really contributed to lawmakers and local leaders getting more active and involved on this: scrutinizing their safety plans, asking for more information from the railroads.  So we're kind of proud of this one.

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