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Rail Oil Shipments Through Maine Questioned in Wake of Quebec Disaster
07/08/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

As more fracked oil moves through Maine by train, environmental activists who oppose such shipments say the state is at risk of having the same kind of derailment that struck a small Quebec town over the weekend. Emergency crews in Lac-Megantic are still trying to account for dozens of people, missing since a runaway tanker train exploded in the town center Saturday, killing at least 13 people. The 73-car train was scheduled to pass through Maine on its way to the Irving Oil Refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick. In response to the accident, activists are calling for increased track inspections and less rail movement of fracked oil through the state. Jay Field reports.

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Two years ago at this time, shipping oil through Maine by train was a non-issue, because - as Chop Hardenburgh notes - no one was doing it. Hardenbergh edits the newsletter Atlantic Northeast Rails and Ports.

"Since then, the oil in the Bakken region in North Dakota has just been gushing out," thanks to a controversial extraction technique known as fracking.

These shale deposits are now producing so much oil that the cost, per barrel, for North American crude is much lower than the overseas price. Hardenbergh says that's caused companies like Irving to begin buying up large amounts of oil from North Dakota. But there's no pipeline to get it to Irving's refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick.

"So the rail has just taken off like a shot, going from nothing to one and a half million barrels a month," Hardenburgh says.

Saturday's derailment and explosion in Quebec is the most serious accident since the oil-by-rail boom began. But it's not the first. Back in March, some 30,000 barrels of oil passed through Maine, according to a Reuters report. That same month, a Pan Am Railways oil train derailed around 100 yards from the Penobscot River in Mattawamkeag, spilling a tiny amount of oil.

"The tragedy at Lac-Megantic is the inevitable result of a system that has lost its moral compass," said Read Brugger and other members of the group Maine 350, who protested Monday outside Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway headquarters in Hermon.

Brugger and other members of the group, which opposes fracking and seeks to draw attention to carbon pollution, were arrested last month for blocking a rail crossing in Fairfield. "Our fossil fuel addiction is turning vast areas of the planet into environmental sacrifice zones," Brugger said.

In Lac-Megantic, officials are still coming to terms with the human and environmental toll of Saturday's accident. Dozens of people are still unaccounted for, as emergency officials wait until it is safe enough to search the hardest hit section of the town center.

An engineer had left the train with its air brakes on, after his shift. But in an interview with Reuters, the head of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway says power to the brakes was inadvertently cut off when firemen came to put down an unrelated blaze in one of the train's locomotives.

Another member of Maine 350, Jim Freeman, says the accident and the recent derailment in Maine, should be seen as huge red flag.

"And I'd like to call for an independent survey, investigation of the rail lines that carry these trains that are way heavier than a normal train," he says. "There's 104 cars that come through Maine repeatedly. And the tracks are deplorable. Just walk a few hundred yards up a track and you'll be shocked at the condition they're in."

A call to the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway was not returned by airtime.

"People are asking questions now and rightly so," says Ted Talbott, with the Maine Department of Transportation. Talbot says rail tracks in the state are inspected regularly by state and federal inspectors, under the guidance of the Federal Rail Administration. "So we work in conjunction with the FRA - It is the federal standards that we hold the companies to."

The FRA did not return a call for comment by airtime. The Maine Department of Transportation, meantime, says it has no plans to try and slow movement of oil-filled tanker trains across the state.



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