BILL GATES: THREATENS THE LIVES OF MILLIONS ACROSS TWO COUNTRIES
Not Only Is Gates Strong-Arming Public Education, He Is Responsible For Needless Fatalities
Please contact your legislators and fight against Canadian National’s entitlement by federal law to carry hazardous materials of any kind on the EJ&E Railroad. Currently, hazardous materials are being transported via railroad within yards of residential areas. EJ&E Railroad stretches from Canada and runs throughout the heart of America. Bill Gates is the primary shareholder of Canadian National. Canadian National purchased EJ&E Railroad and is transporting petroleum products and ethanol through American communities, putting millions of men, women, and children at risk.
SEE: NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC Daily News
Illinois Village Leads Charge for Tougher Oil Train Rules
In Quebec, a derailment resulted in an explosion killing 47 unsuspecting citizens and burning for four days. Below is their story. There have been at least four other fiery oil train derailments since then. Some 2,400 residents near Fargo, North Dakota, were forced to flee their homes on December 30 when an oil train collided with a train carrying grain. (See related, “N.D. Oil Train Fire Spotlights Risks of Transporting Crude.” Then, on January 7, a train carrying crude oil and propane derailed in northwest New Brunswick, Canada; authorities evacuated 45 homes and barred residents from the site while the fire burned. The November 7 derailment of a tanker train carrying crude in western Alabama, one of at least four oil train accidents in the last three months, derailed resulting in a large spill and fire. On June 19, 2009, a train hauling ethanol derailed and exploded in Cherry Valley, Illinois, about 75 miles west of Chicago. The blast and fire killed a passenger in one of the cars stopped at the grade crossing, injured seven other people, forced evacuation of 600 homes, and caused $8 million in damages. Especially haunting: 44-year-old Zoila Tellez died trying to flee, but could not outrun the fireball.
Although there was no fire, other derailments include: October 19, in Gainford, Alberta; Feb 24, 2014, Fairbanks, St. Louis County, Minnesota; Feb 23, 2014, Saint-Henri, Montreal, Quebec (CN main line derailed close to homes, community organizations, and schools); Feb 9, 2014, New Lenox, Illinois (3 to 4 CN cars derailed near Lincoln-Way High School. Local officials tried to get CN to build an overpass at one of the major crossings to mitigate the additional train traffic, but CN refused.); Jan 31, 2014, Outside New Augusta, Mississippi; Jan 28, 2014, Mundelein, Illinois; Jan 26, 2014, Saint-Basile, Edmundston, New Brunswick (A local farmer had warned CN last summer that repairs were required at the site of the derailment).
See CN Railway Derailments, Other Accidents and Incidents for additional examples.
Crude oil shipments on U.S. Class 1 railroads, the major freight lines have increased 85-fold since 2006, from 4,700 carloads to 400,000 in 2013, according to a rail industry regulatory filing. This has caused an increase from three freight trains a day through towns to 20.
The most controversial issue before the U.S. regulators is whether to order retrofits or an aggressive phaseout of the rail tank cars called DOT-111s. As early as 1991, the NTSB warned the cars were inadequate for flammable materials and were unable to withstand the forces of an accident, even in a train traveling at slow speeds.
Throughout the U.S. and Canada, there are thousands of CN derailments, spills, fires and other accidents. The Transportation Safety Board of Canada, Railway Association of Canada and past CN employees indicate that CN intentionally does not report hundreds of derailments and other accidents.
Many news stories misrepresent cargo as grain or coal, and major media companies do not appear to report this information. News of derailments seem to only be carried by local newspapers. I suspect this is due to Bill Gate’s financial interest and backing of Canadian National, as well as that of our Federal Government.
Please contact your legislators and fight for our public safety:
I received the following response from the Village of Barrington:
Dear Ms. Songer,
We are aware of the potential CN/EJ&E Railroad threats and have made numerous efforts to make changes in that industry to increase safety. The railroad is currently allowed by federal law to carry hazardous materials of any kind on the EJ&E. Our Village President has testified in Washington, D.C. on numerous occasions asking Congress and their related agencies to improve railcars that carry hazardous materials to make such movement safer and to take other additional safety measures to protect the public, particularly those who live near the railroad.
The tank cars that are passing by today may be filled with any number of liquid commodities, including crude oil, ethanol and the like. In most instances, tank cars moving over the CN in a southbound or east bound direction would be loaded with product, while northbound tank cars are empty and moving back to Canada to be reloaded. Unfortunately, there is nothing that can be done to prevent CN’s movement of such commodities over the former EJ&E tracks. The railcars from Alberta are usually loaded with heavy crude, rather than the lighter and far more explosive Bakken crude, thus lessening the danger of an explosion in the case of a derailment.
We have notified President Obama of the immediate need to have his administration ban the transportation of such highly flammable commodities in outdated tank cars that are known to rupture if they are derailed during their journey to the refineries or blending facilities in the case of ethanol.
We recommend that communities call their member of Congress and have that member join with us in demanding immediate action by the White House.
Barrington was one of the original members of TRAC, I would suggest that you look at that website for historical information on our efforts to improve this situation as well as current efforts that are underway.
Village of Barrington
This practice is a threat to public safety and must stop, immediately! CHILDREN LIVE IN HOMES WITHIN YARDS OF THIS RAILROAD!! HOW CAN WE ALLOW THE LIVES OF MILLIONS OF CHILDREN TO BE PUT AT RISK?
To make things a bit more interesting, Bill Gates is essentially the primary shareholder of CN Rail. According toFactSet, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the 9th largest insider and they hold 17,126,874 shares of CNI. That represents an ownership of 2% and it takes up 4% of their portfolio. The largest shareholder of CNI is Cascade Investment and with 86,324,874 shares (worth about $4.5 billion) they hold 10% ownership of the stock. That holding is the largest holding at Cascade Investments and it represents 22% of their portfolio. As Cascade is controlled by Bill Gates, then Bill Gates is essentially the largest shareholder of CNI.
The documentation of the Quebec Train Explosion below includes the following:In June, Canadian pipeline giant Enbridge Inc. pleaded for FERC’s help after discovering massive volumes of hydrogen sulfides had been piped into its storage tank in Berthold, N.D. U.S. laws prohibit workers from being exposed to more than 50 parts of hydrogen sulfide per million milligrams of liquid. Anything above triggers shock and convulsions; push it beyond 700 and death is likely within two breaths. At its Berthold facility, Enbridge discovered crude with 1,200 parts per million of the gas.
National Transportation Safety Board: Safety Recommendation
This document outlines the events on record leading up to the following disaster.
Docket No. PHMSA-2012-0082 HM-251 RIN 2137-AE91
Hazardous Materials: Rail Petitions and Recommendations
These documents show that for more than 20 years, safety investigators have been warning that the majority of tank cars used to haul flammable liquids on North American railroads are prone to puncture. And with sharply increasing production of both petroleum products and ethanol in the past five years, there is now an “unprecedented volume of flammable liquids currently in rail commerce,” said the investigative agency, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)
QUEBEC TRAIN EXPLOSION
Our investigative team has spent the past four months documenting the monumental tragedy through the eyes of survivors and examining the causes of the crash.
The deadly secret behind the Lac-Mégantic inferno
Emergency crews ran for cover when they heard the noise, as they fought blasts of burning oil during the Lac-Mégantic rail disaster. The kettle-boil scream meant one thing: Oil vapours were shooting out of a derailed tank car and another fireball was about to rip from the broken train.
It wasn’t until four days after the July 6 derailment that the fires finally subsided. But even before the inferno was extinguished and the burned-out town counted its 47 dead, rescue workers and rail, petroleum and government officials were asking the same troubling question: Why was the oil so explosive?
The North Dakota crude that levelled Lac-Mégantic was classified as flammable, a long-standing practice for all oils moved by rail. Hazardous material experts and rail officials interviewed by The Globe and Mail say the risks of exploding crude were not scrutinized until the tragedy.
“The explosions and everything, I didn’t think crude oil did that,” said Ed Pritchard, a former accident investigator with the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration.
Related video: How oil from the Bakken formation decimated Lac-Mégantic
Canada’s Transportation Safety Board agreed. During an August briefing on its investigation into the crash, Ed Belkaloul, head of the federal TSB in Quebec, said the oil carried to Lac-Mégantic is undergoing testing because the crude reacted “in a way that was abnormal.”
The potential explosiveness of the crude should not have been such a mystery. An investigation by The Globe into the Lac-Mégantic explosions shows there were warning signs that crude from the Bakken region straddling North Dakota and parts of Manitoba and Saskatchewan was not like other oils.
In New Town, N.D., where the ill-fated train was loaded with Bakken crude, locals like to boast that the honey-coloured oil is so light they can take it right from the well and pour it into truck engines because it requires little refining. Long before the crude exploded at Lac-Mégantic, there were signs that shippers, regulators and rail officials did not appear to consider the variable characteristics of oil loaded onto trains that travel through towns and cities.
As early as 2010, North Dakota geologists were investigating lethal gases in the oil. Early last spring, the Washington-based FRA grew concerned about Bakken crude when it became aware of “severe corrosion” of tank car walls and joints, according to a letter sent to a U.S. petroleum association. The five-page letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Globe, cites test findings showing that some Bakken oil was so flammable it could be ignited at temperatures as low as 20 C.
Bigger alarms went off in May, when pipeline giant Enbridge Inc. discovered dangerous hydrogen sulfide levels in Bakken crude – 24 times the legal limit. That was enough to prompt the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to grant emergency powers to Enbridge to block crude that carried excessive amounts of the potentially lethal and explosive sulfide vapours from entering its pipeline.
Bakken oil is potentially more hazardous than conventional crude because it is lighter and contains a number of gases and compounds, such as methane and propane, that can make it much more corrosive and volatile.
What no one appears to have responded to was the safety of the rail transportation network carrying the oil. Today, railways haul more than two-thirds of the nearly 700,000 barrels of crude shipped daily from the Bakken formation of shale oil. Crude initially stranded by a pipeline shortage is now carried on trains loaded with as many as 120 cars of oil – so-called unit trains of crude that didn’t exist five years ago.
U.S. and Canadian railway laws require shippers, railways and even buyers to ensure hazardous goods such as petroleum are properly classified so they are carried in sufficiently sturdy cars. But interviews with rail officials and exclusive access granted to a Globe reporter to the North Dakota crude facility that loaded the Lac-Mégantic train indicate that the makeup and flammability of Bakken oil is not always tested.
In the rush to capitalize on one of the world’s biggest oil booms, questions about the potential hazards of shipping Bakken crude by rail took a back seat. When railways were chosen to supplement a pipeline shortage, the modern boom quickly stretched the limits of a century-old transportation network and regulatory system designed for safer goods such as grain and lumber.
Mr. Pritchard said that in his experience as a railroad inspector, oil companies and shippers do not always examine oil for corrosiveness and explosiveness.
“They didn’t test the oil,” he said.
Authorities did test the oil after the Lac-Mégantic disaster because, as regulators said, they could not explain the speed and ferocity of the fire.
“Did I lie awake about this? Yeah, I laid awake at night,” Hunter Harrison, chief executive officer of Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd., said of the Quebec catastrophe. Canadian Pacific locomotives started the 72-tanker train on its journey from North Dakota. When the train pulled into a Montreal rail yard, the tank cars were transferred to Montreal, Maine & Atlantic (MM&A) Railway locomotives for delivery to an Irving Oil refinery in Saint John.
Prior to Lac-Mégantic, neither Mr. Harrison nor any other rail official, shipper, regulator or buyer publicly expressed concerns about shipping such large volumes of Bakken crude. Since then, Mr. Harrison has been a vocal critic of what he calls an inflexible and outdated regulatory regime that needs to be more vigilant and aggressive with mislabelled hazardous goods.
The train from North Dakota barrelled through the American Midwest, north to Windsor, Ont., and on to Burlington, Mississauga, Toronto and dozens of smaller towns before reaching Lac-Mégantic.
“I wonder this: Do people know what is going by their front door?” Mr. Harrison said.
Ever since a drill rig struck black gold on Henry Bakken’s farm in 1951, oil production has been an exercise in frustration in North Dakota. The gusher helped reveal what is now regarded as the largest single continuous oil formation in the United States.
The well on Mr. Bakken’s farm somehow managed to drill through an existing shale rock fracture that tapped directly into a large pool of oil. For the next 50 years, the struggle to cajole “tight” Bakken oil from shale was a never-ending experiment in drilling techniques.
Holes had to be drilled into the rock and the oil pumped out with a pressurized brew of water, sand and chemicals. These hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, techniques are time-consuming, expensive and not always successful. When oil prices cratered in the mid-1980s, the wells were no longer economically viable. North Dakota went into a slump for two decades.
Good times returned in the mid-2000s when oil prices skyrocketed and local operators discovered that tilting vertical drills horizontally along the oil-rich middle of the Bakken rock sandwich significantly boosted the odds of scoring oil. Global oil giants moved in, thousands of new wells were erected, and the thinly populated state of 690,000 struggled to process the rapid industrialization of a landscape shaped by cattle and wheat farms.
As oil output soared, so did hazards. Workplace accidents increased so dramatically that North Dakota now has the highest rate of job fatalities in the U.S. – 12.4 per 100,000 workers, or four times the national rate. Gas pipelines are in such short supply that 30 per cent of natural gas isn’t properly harvested and is instead burned off. From satellite cameras, North Dakota looks like a birthday cake with thousands of glowing candles.
While the state struggled to keep up with the boom, its oil reserves grew exponentially. A 2013 U.S. Geological Survey report estimates there are more than seven billion barrels of undiscovered and technically recoverable oil in the Bakken, more than twice its original estimate. Today, North Dakota is the second-largest domestic producer of oil after Texas.
What should have been an economic miracle for North Dakota has instead been a logistical nightmare. Since 2009, the state has been producing oil faster than it can be shipped to refineries. The bottleneck is so bad that market prices for Bakken crude are at times heavily discounted, falling as much as 28 per cent below benchmark prices in early 2012.
Existing pipelines winding through the state were already operating at full capacity. As a result, more than a third of the state’s production was being shipped out on trucks by 2007, according to the North Dakota Pipeline Authority. The trucking frenzy was chewing up roads, driving accident rates to record highs and infuriating local residents.
One of the best solutions to the oil “overload,” a seven-page memo from the pipeline authority explained in 2007, would be to gain access to the Keystone XL pipeline that was set to travel through the state by 2009. Moving oil by rail “didn’t make economic sense,” the report concluded, because it was too expensive and rail-loading facilities and tank cars were as rare as rain on North Dakota’s parched plains.
Six years after North Dakota’s hopeful report, the pipeline is still stalled by political and environmental opposition.
“The Keystone pipeline decision has taken longer than it took us to defeat Hitler,” Heidi Heitkamp, a Democratic senator from North Dakota, fumed to USA Today in September.
PIPELINES ON THE RAILS
While the Keystone battle raged, oil-bearing trains slipped into the state with no additional regulatory scrutiny. Railways may be more expensive, slower and somewhat less reliable than pipelines, but in oil-clogged North Dakota they had a compelling sales pitch.
“Instant capacity,” Trevin Hogg, a marketing manager with Union Pacific Railroad, boasted to industry trade journal Rail Magazine in 2011. While pipelines can wait years for approval, Mr. Hogg promised crude trains in North Dakota within “a couple of months.”
What happened next was the largest surge ever in rail shipments of hazardous goods. By last month, more than 400,000 tank cars were carrying crude oil through Canadian and U.S. towns and cities. In 2009, the number was 8,000.
“This came on us pretty quick … like a gold rush,” said Canadian Pacific’s Mr. Harrison.
Canadian Pacific ranks as the second-biggest carrier of Bakken oil, after Texas-based BNSF Railroad, which accounts for nearly two-thirds of all crude rail shipments originating from North Dakota.
On paper, the concept of loading unit trains with crude was a brilliant stroke. The agonizing wait for new pipeline capacity had been solved, railways underwent an economic renaissance and Bakken oil was on track to eliminate American dependence on foreign oil.
By 2013, railways had become such a convenient shortcut that Kinder Morgan Energy Partners, the largest pipeline company in the U.S., announced in April that it was entering a new venture to ship crude by rail. Railways, more than a third more expensive than the cost of shooting oil through pipelines, were becoming the transportation mode of choice even for pipeline companies.
NEW TOWN, NEW WORLD
One outsider that helped pave the way for the rails was Miami-based energy logistics company World Fuel Services Corp. When the Bakken boom grabbed headlines in 2009, the buyer and shipper of fuel saw an opportunity to make money by buying heavily discounted Bakken oil on the bet that it could help break the crude bottleneck.
A World Fuel subsidiary formed a venture with a regional landowner, Dakota Plains Holding, to refurbish an old rail line south of the small community of New Town in northwest North Dakota. Located on 192 acres, the Dakota Plains facility is an efficient assembly line of incoming trucks, oil storage tanks, loading stations and rail tracks that transfers arriving crude from local producers to outgoing trains.
Shortly after Dakota Plains went into operation, World Fuel landed a contract to ship oil to a refinery owned by Irving Oil in Saint John. World Fuel bought oil from local producers and contracted railways to deliver the crude to New Brunswick.
Initially, World Fuel contacted Canada’s two Class I railways. The first was Canadian Pacific, which had been hauling shipments of Bakken crude for a few years. The second, according to one source familiar with the conversation, was Canadian National Railway. Canadian Pacific was signed up, but Canadian National was rejected because it proposed a high fee, the source said.
The cheaper alternative was to combine Canadian Pacific with a struggling short-line railroad that barely stayed afloat hauling lumber and other forest products down some of the ricketiest tracks on the East Coast. MM&A was contracted to carry the crude from Montreal to the New Brunswick border, where its cargo would be handed over to a railway owned by the Irving family.
It can take as little as three or four hours to pump oil out of the ground and load it onto trains at the New Town facility. The Globe’s review of the fuel-loading site confirmed that crude deliveries arriving from local wells are regularly mixed in holding tanks with oil from other wells.
Alan Roberts, who spent 43 years at the U.S. Department of Transportation investigating rail accidents, said crude is so variable that the blending of oil in North Dakota makes it difficult to know how caustic the mix is. “There is probably not any well site in the world where it has identical crude to the next field over or next field up,” he said.
Even if the oil is tested and determined to be safe, the risk of explosion can be further compounded in transit when exposed to a hot sun, Mr. Roberts said.
“You get down the road and the sample could be entirely different,” he said. “Why? Because the materials will stratify.” In such cases, the lighter ends rise to the top and vapourize faster, creating an explosion risk.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada issued an advisory in September that oil carried on the Lac-Mégantic train was more flammable than identified by its shipper. The board also said Irving Oil was responsible under Canadian regulations for ensuring that the crude was properly classified.
Paul Browning, chief executive officer of Irving Oil, said in an interview that one of the lessons to be learned from Lac-Mégantic is that additional testing is required. “I think the important thing as the importer,” he said, “is we need to be in a position to convince the regulators that we’ve done our due diligence to make sure we understand the content of the rail cars.”
THE SOURING OF BAKKEN OIL
Troubling signs were emerging about Bakken crude as early as 2010. In December of that year, a team of geologists and researchers presented an abstract to a Texas symposium about their plans to investigate the “souring” of Bakken oil. The abstract noted increased concentrations of hydrogen sulfide in local crude, which was posing health and environmental risks and corroding well equipment.
Their concerns raised questions about North Dakota crude, which was prized for its light qualities. Other oil formations in North Dakota and in parts of Canada are known for dangerous sulfide spikes, identified by a swampy odour of rotten eggs. The geologists outlined an ambitious research program to evaluate local wells and sample oil to understand more about the source of sulfides. The potential causes they outlined were fracturing fluids, chemical reactions with minerals or surface bacteria.
Four months later, the geologists published a short paper concluding it was unlikely that a chemical reaction with minerals explained the rise in sulfides. The team did not follow through with its plans to assess local wells, and there was no examination of the oil’s interaction with chemically infused fracking fluids. Jim Sorensen, one of the authors of the report, said the research was discontinued because “we weren’t seeing as much interest in the souring.” The most likely culprit, he said, was bacteria on pumps, valves or storage tanks that were contaminating Bakken oil with sulfides.
“The oil companies are aware of this phenomenon,” he said, and have since tried to control sulfide outbreaks by scrubbing equipment with chemical cleaners known as biocides.
Justin Bremer, also one of the authors, offered another explanation for the abbreviated research: “We didn’t get a whole lot of co-operation from the industry.” The research project had been triggered by a request from a local crude producer in 2010 that later decided not to co-operate when geologists started asking for samples and data about sulfides. The identity of the producer was not revealed. “It really would have helped. … We would have been able to pinpoint the cause pretty quickly,” Mr. Bremer said.
Oil is regulated in North Dakota by the state’s Department of Mineral Resources. Mr. Sorensen referred further questions about potential Bakken oil risks to the department’s director Lynn Helms. A spokeswoman for Mr. Helms said he would not take questions relating to Bakken crude. “We don’t have statistics on the nature of crude … it is not what we would look at.” She said although the Lac-Mégantic oil explosions were “tragic and unfortunate,” examining potential chemical risks in Bakken crude “doesn’t fall under our jurisdiction.” She referred questions about the safety of crude to federal railroad regulators.
The sulfide problem emerged again in early 2013 when pipeline companies started blocking oil with high rates of hydrogen sulfide. According to the Federal Energy Regulation Commission, Tesoro High Plains Pipeline began rejecting in January Bakken oil with more than five parts per million of sulfides. Belle Fourche and Bridger Pipeline moved in April to reject oil with more than 10 parts.
In June, Canadian pipeline giant Enbridge Inc. pleaded for FERC’s help after discovering massive volumes of hydrogen sulfides had been piped into its storage tank in Berthold, N.D. U.S. laws prohibit workers from being exposed to more than 50 parts of hydrogen sulfide per million milligrams of liquid. Anything above triggers shock and convulsions; push it beyond 700 and death is likely within two breaths. At its Berthold facility, Enbridge discovered crude with 1,200 parts per million of the gas.
“We had to protect our people, our workers,” said Robert Steede, Enbridge’s director of North Dakota operations.
FERC granted Enbridge’s plea to ban oil with more than five parts of hydrogen sulfide, despite an opposing motion from a local shipper, Plains Marketing LLP, that such an order could cause it “great economic harm.”
For its part, World Fuel said it has not seen the same problem with hydrogen sulfide (H2S). “Based on our testing, H2S hasn’t been a significant issue,” a company spokesman said.
U.S. federal railroad regulators started to take a second look at North Dakota crude in early 2013 after receiving reports about badly corroded tank cars. The discovery raised concerns about whether the crude was being shipped in sufficiently sturdy cars. Last spring, the FRA launched Operation Classification to investigate.
Random tests showed some Bakken oil was unusually flammable, improperly classified as a less hazardous material and transported in tank cars designed for less volatile crude. Crude is typically shipped in tankers known as DOT-111 cars, which have been criticized for being susceptible to corrosion and ruptures.
In a June 19 letter to the American Petroleum Institute, the railroad regulator made the remarkable admission that its investigative tools are so limited it “can only speculate” about the number of hazardous crude shipments that were improperly shipped.
According to industry sources, Canadian rail officials also began auditing oil, but their approach was, on at least one occasion, clumsy. In early 2013, Canadian transport officials tested a Canadian Pacific train and discovered crude was improperly classified. When they alerted the railway, the train had already left the station. There was no followup.
In October, after the Transportation Safety Board found the oil on the Lac-Mégantic train was incorrectly classified, Federal Minister of Transportation Lisa Raitt introduced new regulations that were intended to get tough on oil shippers. Anyone shipping oil to Canada would have to test to confirm it was less volatile than a Packing Group 1.
While that sounded reassuring, Mr. Prichard points out the failings of those rules: Since railways and fuel shippers are all about speed, it’s easier to simply label all oil as Packing Group 1, without stopping to test it. In fact, The Globe has since learned that not all oil shipments in North Dakota are being tested. The result is railways and shippers have no better idea of the volatility of the oil they are shipping by rail today than they did before Lac-Mégantic.
It was just past midnight when the ground started to shake. Then came the explosions, one after another, so quickly that they couldn’t be counted. Soon the sky was choked with black belching fumes of burning oil and gas that reached as high as 300 feet, witnesses said. It was two days before the burning oil was finally exhausted.
This was not a scene from Lac-Mégantic in July. Rather, these fiery blasts occurred on a flat timber trestle carrying 90 cars of Bakken crude over an Alabama swamp on Nov. 8. Four months after some rail experts portrayed the Lac-Mégantic explosions as a once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe caused by a confluence of railway errors, a steep hill and the town’s cramped downtown, Bakken oil once again detonated a chain of tank cars.
There were no brake issues, no hill or cramped urban space to account for the Alabama explosions. This accident, still under investigation, occurred on a 10-foot-high embankment on a rural stretch outside Aliceville.
“No one was killed or injured,” said Ken Gibson, director of the local Alabama Emergency Management Agency. “We were very fortunate this was an isolated area.”
With a report from Justin Giovannetti in Lac-Mégantic and Jeff Jones in Calgary
North Dakota’s explosive Bakken oil: The story behind a troubling crude
The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Dec. 31 2013, 11:36 PM EST
Last updated Monday, Jan. 13 2014, 7:59 PM EST
Each of these accidents shared a key ingredient: Trains carrying hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil from North Dakota derailed on their way to refineries in Canada and the United States, and the cargo exploded in ways that no one had previously thought possible.
Until Lac-Mégantic, crude oil was known to be flammable. But no one – not government regulators or oil shippers – thought it was explosive.
Until Alabama, the Lac-Mégantic disaster was thought to have been a freak accident that would likely not reoccur.
And before Monday’s fiery derailment of an oil train near Casselton, N.D., which caused the evacuation of nearly 3,000 people, the North Dakota government was commissioning a study that would show it was safe to move massive amounts of oil on 100-car trains. The report, when finished, would try to dispel the negative press the state’s oil industry was getting since 47 people were killed in Lac-Mégantic.
With the practice of moving crude oil by rail now under scrutiny, North Dakota has a lot at stake. The state sits squarely atop one of the biggest oil booms North America has seen in recent memory. The Bakken formation, a layer of oil that lies beneath North Dakota and parts of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, is rich with crude.
Billions of dollars’ worth of oil is now being pulled from the ground each year. There are jobs. Impoverished reservations now have money. They all have the oil to thank.
However, Bakken crude is not like other oil.
It’s not the kind of crude most people associate with the movies or TV: the licorice-coloured bubblin’ crude that seeped from the ground during the opening credits of The Beverly Hillbillies.
Before I ever set eyes on Bakken crude for the first time, I was warned it would look different.
Soon after the oil train explosion in Lac-Mégantic, I travelled to the heart of North Dakota’s oil boom to see where the oil that erupted so violently came from.
After driving an hour and a half from Minot, N.D., into the barren prairie, I pulled a rental car to a stop at a plywood cabin, a makeshift office that had been hastily constructed to serve as a headquarters for one of the many oil companies flocking to the Bakken in search of profit. Pump jacks dotted the horizon in every direction, pulling oil from three kilometres beneath the earth.
A man in a white hard hat and steel-toed boots greeted me and, after a few pleasantries, ducked into another room. He returned carrying a Mason jar and placed it on the table. As far as crude oil goes, the stuff in the jar was fresh – right out of the ground.
If most oil looks like a pint of Guinness when it comes out of the earth, people say Bakken oil is more like Miller Lite. It’s a joke people in these parts like to tell.
But it’s true: the crude looks more like gasoline than it does oil. This is also where it gets its explosive properties.
Heavy oil, like the tarry bitumen mined in Northern Alberta, is filled with solids that must be refined out of the oil to make it usable. Bakken crude lives at the other end of the spectrum: it is so-called “light oil.” It takes minimal refining, which is what makes it so attractive to oil companies. This stuff is as close to gasoline as you’re going to get.
“Some guys around here,” the man in the hard hat tells me. “Pour it directly in their trucks.”
That sounds apocryphal. He insists it’s true. I am reluctant to experiment with the rental car.
The man has asked that I not use his name or identify him in any way. Letting a reporter inside to see this oil could very well cost him his job. After all, Bakken oil is now at the heart of an international investigation, as regulators from Canada and the United States try to figure out whether the oil is safe to transport by rail. In the wake of the Lac-Mégantic explosions, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board simply said the way the crude blew up was “unusual.”
Dozens of samples of Bakken oil like this are now an exhibit in the multibillion-dollar lawsuits expected to flow from the Lac-Mégantic disaster.
On close examination, the oil has a chameleon-like quality.
Hold it up to the light and yellow-green hues emerge. In the shadows it appears dusty brown. Stick a finger in it, and it emerges orange.
The oil is many things to many people. Those in Lac-Mégantic know it as a killer. It is the crude that burned their town, killed their neighbours, and has seeped into the ground leaving dangerous residues such as benzene and other contaminants behind, that will threaten water, air quality and soil for years to come.
In North Dakota, Bakken crude means new life for a state that was in tatters a decade ago. Even in the immediate aftermath of the Lac-Mégantic disaster, locals fret about what will happen if the oil stops moving.
As recently as 2002, the state’s population was in decline, unemployment was rising and vast tracts of land were being abandoned as the farming economy withered. Things were so dire that, in 2003, a geographer named Frank Popper proposed turning vast sections of North Dakota land back over to the buffalo, as a way to revive the bison herd.
The idea never caught on, but it showed how worthless much of North Dakota’s rural real estate was. By 2006, railway traffic through the state dwindled to the point that local government began preparing to tear up track beds and replace them with bike paths.
Then everything changed for North Dakota. An oil boom happened. Suddenly, those same rail lines were needed to ship oil to market because pipelines were in short supply.
But with this week’s train derailment in Casselton, N.D., has again changed the narrative.
The danger of moving Bakken crude by rail has now landed on North Dakota’s doorstep. It is no longer a problem in far-off Quebec or Alabama.
Before handing the Mason jar of oil back to the man in the white hard hat, I held it up to my nose and took a breath. Seeing me do this, he joked: smells like gasoline, doesn’t it?
It did. Which is why Bakken crude is now under closer investigation.
Why towns are powerless to stop another disaster like Lac-Mégantic
GRANT ROBERTSON AND JACQUIE MCNISH
The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Dec. 04 2013, 5:10 AM EST
Last updated Wednesday, Dec. 04 2013, 2:44 PM EST
The first steam locomotive to arrive in Lac La Biche back in 1915 was greeted with cheers. Today the 100-car oil trains that run through the heart of the Northern Alberta town are met with a mixture of anger and worry.
The tracks bisect the town. The hospital lies on one side, the fire station on the other. Over the past five years, as the oil boom escalated and more and more bitumen from Fort McMurray was shipped by rail, the oil trains grew long enough to block all the town’s railway crossings for extended periods of time.
“We’ve had blockings up to 45 minutes,” Mayor Aurel Langevin said. “If we have an ambulance that’s waiting to get to the hospital and it’s caught up in this traffic, there could be some very serious consequences.” And what is now a few trains a day will likely increase. “We’ve received some notice, some forecasts [from the oil industry], that we can expect up to eight trains a day coming through our community – eight trains of 100 cars or more,” the mayor said.
One might think the town would have the ability to tell the railway to manage the crossings better. But the plight of Lac La Biche illustrates the problems that cities and towns face in dealing with railways in their own backyard: They have no power.
The power balance – or imbalance – was thrust into the national spotlight in July when Lac-Mégantic erupted in flames in the worst railway disaster in Canadian history. The train, carrying 72 cars of explosive crude, derailed in the Quebec town, killing 47 people. But when the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway began moving large amounts of oil through town on a regular basis, the people living there weren’t consulted. The town had no say.
Even before Lac-Mégantic, though, 2013 had become the year when long-simmering tensions between Canada’s federally regulated railways and the country’s municipalities bubbled to the surface. From British Columbia and Alberta to Manitoba and Quebec, the disputes have differed in specific causes, but all stem from the new era of moving oil and related products in mass amounts by rail – and the longer trains associated with the oil boom.
Bestowed with federal powers that date back to the writing of the Constitution, when railways were nation-builders, the industry lies out of the reach of lawmakers at the provincial and municipal levels. Federal legislation ensured that a national network of rails could be created and that companies weren’t hindered by a patchwork of rules varying from city to city or province to province, slowing the pace of commerce.
“The provinces and the municipalities have no authority over these federal railways,” said Kenneth Peel, a Toronto lawyer specializing in Canadian railway law. “So a complaint about how they’re running their business, by and large, is not something the federal railway companies have to pay legal attention to.”
ENGINES OF COMMERCE
Railways move $200-billion worth of goods across Canada each year, according to the Railway Association of Canada. Most household products, from clothes to appliances and chemicals, likely encountered the country’s railway system at some point.
The industry is also crucial in moving some of the most hazardous materials. When cities require chlorine to operate their water-treatment plants, for example, they often rely on railways to deliver that extremely dangerous cargo.
But with federal regulations governing the railways, there are few avenues of recourse for the people who live in the cities and towns through which the trains pass. In the case of the Lac-Mégantic disaster, a Globe and Mail investigation found the federal government placed no added safety restrictions on the industry’s decision to move mass quantities of potentially dangerous crude and that warnings about the explosiveness of the oil were ignored.
Ten days before the Lac-Mégantic catastrophe shook the country, another rail accident – the derailment of a Canadian Pacific train in Calgary – had already become a poster child for railway-versus-city dysfunction.
Details of what happened differ, but some facts are not in dispute. In the early morning hours of June 27, as Calgary battled rising floodwaters and raging rivers, a CP engineer drove a train carrying petroleum products across a rail bridge near the edge of downtown. What he didn’t know was that beneath the river’s surface, debris and the rushing current had battered the structures holding the 101-year-old bridge in place. As the foundation cracked, the bridge tilted and a rail car jumped the tracks, coming to rest on the side of the damaged bridge. Six cars carrying some form of petroleum products dangled precariously over the Bow River.
For city fire crews arriving on the scene, the immediate question was: What was in the cars? Would it be noxious if the cars ruptured, poisonous if the contents spilled into the river or explosive if a spark ignited the vapours? The placards on the tankers didn’t give a clear enough answer. And when the city sought further information, the answers weren’t easy to get, said Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi.
“The derailment happened just before 4 a.m., and at 9 a.m. I found myself yelling at CP, saying, ‘What is in the cars? Tell me now exactly what is in the cars,’ ” Mr. Nenshi said in an interview. “This was many hours later. It’s a simple question, one would think.”
The paperwork for the train was incomplete, the mayor said, and CP was scrambling to track down information on the contents as fire crews tried to stabilize the train. It was eventually determined that the cars were filled with diluent, a hazardous material used in pipelines to make thick oil flow better. “I have no regulatory authority over these guys, but it’s my guys risking their lives when these things happen,” Mr. Nenshi fumed to local TV cameras.
CP chief executive officer Hunter Harrison remembers the emergency differently. He says the railway gave fire officials at the scene the necessary information and accuses the mayor of grandstanding ahead of the city’s fall election. “The mayor was standing on a soapbox trying to make a big play,” Mr. Harrison said.
“I was there. I crawled under the car and inspected,” Mr. Harrison said. “I went to the fire chief and said: Here’s what happened. … They shut down the town – it was overkill. There was more police and firemen than I had ever seen.”
The dispute between the head of Canada’s second-largest railway and the mayor of one of the country’s biggest cities is a glimpse into the divide between cities and railways when it comes to sharing information, even in emergencies. Because the bridge belonged to the railway, it was federally regulated land. The city had no idea the bridge wasn’t anchored in the bedrock, as the rest of Calgary’s bridges were, nor could city hall order CP to reinforce the bridge. When the city asked for the blueprints to examine the structure, CP refused, Mr. Nenshi said. Under federal rules, the railway’s authority over the bridge superseded the city’s rights.
Mr. Nenshi can’t understand why railways won’t share more information, provided the city agrees to keep it confidential. Mr. Harrison says the mayor is arguing for municipal regulation of the railways, which would create a disjointed series of rules that would serve only to impede business.
A day after the derailment, Mr. Harrison dismissed suggestions that CP should stop moving trains across the flooded river via an alternate bridge, at least until the waters receded. “We’re jeopardizing commerce,” he said. Later he suggested that the Calgary mayor “is way overstepping” his jurisdiction.
Although the two have attempted to find some common ground after the derailment, Mr. Nenshi described his relations with the railway as “the most challenging corporate relationship I’ve faced in this job.”
Federal regulations say a crossing can’t be blocked longer than five minutes, but locals say those rules are rarely respected. If emergency responders encounter a train on the tracks, they must radio Canadian National Railway to ask permission to cross, though moving the train is never quick.
The town, which has an annual capital budget of $40-million, doesn’t have the money to build tunnels or overpasses, so Mr. Langevin proposed moving CN’s rail yard – which he believes is the source of the train congestion – outside of town.
“The first meeting we had with some senior people in CN, they said: Fine, if you want to have those switching yards moved, go ahead. It’s going to cost you $10-million and you have to pay for it,” Mr. Langevin said. “So I said: Well, that’s fine for you to say that, but at what point in time does a good-corporate-citizen scenario factor into these conversations? We were basically told they don’t.”
Mr. Langevin and others, including Lac La Biche Councillor John Nowak and more than a dozen residents who have posted on a Facebook page, complain about trains blocking crossings for long periods of time – either by going slowly or stopping. Numerous postings mention the risk of emergency vehicles being unable to pass.
CN disputes there are frequent delays. “We do move trains through town, and sometimes build trains in the yard there, but this does not normally involve stopping trains for any length of time,” Warren Chandler, CN’s senior manager of public affairs, said in an e-mail.
He said the major concern in town is trespassing, as people walk through CN’s property to get to the other side of town. Mr. Langevin agrees that’s a problem – but certainly not the biggest.
In the absence of rules, it often comes down to how well local officials and railways can work together. In Slave Lake, Alta., the town faces the same issue with trains cutting off the RCMP detachment from the hospital and fire station.
“The first question I ask is: Where is the fire? The second is: Can I get my guys there?” said Jamie Coots, chief of the Lesser Slave Regional Fire Service. The town has worked with CN crews to move trains in an emergency, which has worked. “It can be very nerve-wracking,” he said.
Trains are becoming such an issue, Mr. Coots says the town is considering building another firehall so that Slave Lake is protected on both sides of the track.
Mr. Langevin wants a better fix to the problem. “It’s tough,” he said. “When you’re dealing with the railways, they’ve got more power than the federal government.”
REFUSING TO WAIT
For some people, the boom in shipping oil by rail – and the inability of local governments to have a say in how railways operate – is unacceptable. After the Lac-Mégantic disaster, The Globe went to Hermon, Me., where MM&A is based.
On the railway corridor leading north to Quebec, the concerns in Maine are no different than they are in Canada. However, Read Brugger, a soft-spoken retired mailman, decided to take matters into his own hands.
Last year, Mr. Brugger stopped his grey Toyota at a railway crossing in the town of Fairfield, where he lives, and waited for a train to pass. He was accustomed to the short delays and expected to see the usual 20 or 30 lumber cars trundle past.
But as his wait grew longer, Mr. Brugger, 63, soon realized he was witnessing something he’d never seen before. More than 100 freight cars rumbled by – a chain of black cylindrical oil tankers that stretched for nearly two kilometres. They rolled past homes, backyards, the elementary school and the town’s 112-year-old library. Each carried the same blunt warning: Hazardous materials. Flammable. “What the hell is this?” he remembers wondering aloud, stunned at the sight.
What Mr. Brugger didn’t realize was that he was witnessing the dawn of a new industry, as upwards of 80,000 barrels of oil made their way to a New Brunswick refinery, riding on rails that were designed a century ago for shipping lumber, coal and grain.
What bothered him most was the lack of public consultation. Residents of the town were the last to know about the oil moving through, so Mr. Brugger decided to do something about it. On a warm June day, he gathered a small group of like-minded neighbours and set up a blockade on the tracks, preventing an oil train from passing through town. When police disbanded the protest after two hours, Mr. Brugger was arrested.
If that much oil was going to be moving through towns like his, there needed to be public discussions, he figured. Otherwise something bad could happen. Nine days later it did – in Lac-Mégantic.
“When I started this,” Mr. Brugger said, “my biggest fear was that the old bridge in town would fall down and the oil goes into the water. It wasn’t this,” he said of the Quebec catastrophe. “This is horrible.”
The damage from the Lac-Mégantic accident, which saw a runaway train derail after the brakes were improperly set, was amplified by the highly explosive oil in the tank cars. Four months later, as the town goes about rebuilding its shattered core, there remains an open question of what rights cities and towns have in relation to the railways. Meanwhile, other communities have grown wary of oil shipments running through their backyards.
In B.C., where debates and delays over new pipelines have prompted talk of shipping oil to West Coast ports by rail, Premier Christy Clark said she opposes the idea, fearing spills from derailments.
“If you look at the record in the United States and in Canada of rail safety when it comes to moving oil, it’s not as good as it is for pipelines,” Ms. Clark said.
However, the railways don’t need approval to start hauling oil through B.C. Their federal right-of-way means the industry can simply do so if there is demand from shippers. Ms. Clark said she hopes companies would respect the need to get a “social licence,” or public approval, before moving oil through the province on their own. If not, she said, B.C. would explore its options.
“I think there are probably levers that [provincial] governments could use,” Ms. Clark said.
But it’s unclear what remedies exist. Omnitrax Canada, a railway company in Manitoba, said this fall it plans to begin sending oil by rail to a port in Churchill, on Hudson Bay, where it will be shipped overseas. The proposal drew immediate opposition from the Manitoba government, which feared the concept was too environmentally risky, since a spill would damage polar bear habitats. Manitoba’s Transportation Minister also raised safety concerns in the wake of the Lac-Mégantic explosions.
Yet Omnitrax is proceeding despite the province’s objections and plans to send its first shipment in 2014, a series of six 80-car oil trains carrying crude destined for refineries in Europe.
In the wake of Lac-Mégantic, the 2,000 municipalities across Canada have had to settle for smaller victories.
Last month, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities won the right to get quarterly and yearly data from railways about the hazardous cargo they ship, to help emergency responders prepare for potential derailments.
In an industry where railways are loath to share any details on hazardous material shipments with outside organizations – citing competitive concerns and worries about terrorist attacks – the disclosure of this information was hailed in Ottawa as a significant breakthrough.
Even federation president Claude Dauphin, the mayor of Lachine, Que., admits he was skeptical at first as to why outdated data would be helpful. “If there’s a train that will be full of chemicals in Lachine, if you have a report about a year ago, that won’t help the accident if it happens tomorrow morning,” he said.
He changed his mind after hearing that emergency responders want to know whether significant quantities of certain dangerous goods are moving through their area – so they can prepare. “It’s a step forward,” Mr. Dauphin said.
But for some municipalities, the steps are not enough. Cities value the railways, said Pauline Quinlan, mayor of Bromont, Que., but there needs to be more collaboration, even if federal laws say the railways don’t have to co-operate.
“We don’t want to not have the privilege of having rail transportation, but we want it to be safe,” Ms. Quinlan said. “It doesn’t seem to be part of their culture to consider us as partners. They have the right to go through, they go through.”
After Lac-Mégantic, and the revelations about the explosiveness of the oil, CP’s Mr. Harrison agrees there is a need to have a broader national conversation about rail safety.
“This is a big enough problem,” he said. “If we all pull together, if we can just take our uniforms off for a few minutes and say, ‘Let’s get this solved,’ ” progress can be made.