Quebec Accident Puts Spotlight on Transporting Oil by Rail

By Beacon Staff

A massive train accident in Quebec, Canada has put a spotlight on oil being moved by rail, some of which is traveling through the Flathead Valley. But BNSF Railway officials stress rail is still the safest way to transport hazardous materials.

In the early hours of July 6, a freight train carrying 72 cars loaded with crude oil derailed in Lac Mégantic, Que., just miles from the Maine border. Some of the cars split open and exploded, destroying part of community’s downtown. As of July 12, 28 people had been confirmed dead and more than 20 were still missing.

The train, operated by a short line railroad, was carrying crude oil from the Bakken region of North Dakota to an oil refinery in New Brunswick. The cause of the wreck is under investigation. In a statement to the Beacon, BNSF officials said the investigation would help railroads learn how to prevent similar accidents in the future.

“Our deepest sympathy and concern is with the victims of the tragic incident in Quebec. While we don’t know the specifics, the results of the investigation will help determine what can be done to ensure it does not happen again,” officials wrote.

While railroads have been moving hazardous materials for decades, the Bakken boom has resulted in more oil on the rails. According to BNSF, the railroad has the capacity to move 1 million barrels of oil per day out of the region. Since 2008, there has been a nearly 7,000 percent increase in the volume of oil the railroad moves. Last year, BNSF hauled 88.9 million barrels of oil and company officials say that number will only increase in the future. Some of that oil is traveling west, through Whitefish and the Flathead Valley, to oil refineries on the coast. In recent months, long strings of tank cars have become a common sight in the area.

Traditionally, most oil and gas producers have used pipelines to move their product. Because the Bakken oil shale development happened so quickly, pipelines haven’t been built fast enough and rail has become the primary method to move the product to market.

A BNSF oil train rolls along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River near Essex in June. A similar train crashed near Lac-Megantic, Que. on July 6, but officials with BNSF Railway say rail is still the safest way to move oil. – Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon.

In the last decade, more than 2,200 barrels of oil have been spilled because of train accidents. But according to the Association of American Railroads, 99.9 percent of all rail hazmat shipments reach their destination without spilling. During that same time period, more than 474,000 barrels of oil were spilled in pipeline accidents, numbers referenced by BNSF.

“Railroads remain the safest way to transport hazardous materials, reducing accidents by 91 percent since 1980 due to industry investment and operating practices, and BNSF is continuously assessing and improving its own operations to prevent incidents in the first place,” the railroad said in a statement.

But the Sierra Club said the Lac Mégantic derailment was another example of why alternative forms of energy should be developed, in an effort to move away from oil.

“This tragedy strengthens our resolve to move beyond fossil fuels so communities in Canada, the U.S. and around the world are no longer threatened by industrial disasters, toxic pollution and climate disruption,” the group said in a press release.

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