The fiery July 6 derailment that took the lives of 15 people and destroyed 30 buildings in Lac-Megantic, Quebec is drawing attention to the risks of transporting petroleum products by rail.
As political battles block pipeline construction, transport of crude oil and other petroleum products has shifted to railways. Canada.com reports that in 2009, 500 carloads of crude oil were transported on Canadian tracks. The Canadian Railway Association expects the number of carloads to increase to at least 140,000 in 2013.
The volume of crude travelling over Canadian tracks has increased by 28,000 per cent over the last five years.
That increase is partially fueled by a surge in U.S. oil production. According to a recent Bloomberg News report, oil producers in North Dakota did not begin shipping crude by rail until 2008. Now nearly 675,000 barrels are shipped each day.
The train that derailed in Lac-Megantic on July 6 was carrying crude oil from the Bakken Fields in North Dakota to the Irving Oil Refinery in New Brunswick.
The sudden increase in rail traffic has put pressure on a Canadian system that, critics say, gives private railway companies too much responsibility and too little oversight.
In Canada, railway safety falls under federal jurisdiction, leaving municipalities little power over railway operations in their communities. For example, it is possible that before the crash, city officials in Lac-Megantic were unaware that the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway train passing through the town was loaded with 72 cars of crude oil. According to a recent Montreal Gazette report, rail companies are not required to inform Canadian municipalities about the type and quantity of hazardous materials they are transporting.
"The information that we have on the materials that are transported is almost nil," Louise Bradette, department head at Montreal’s centre de sécurité civile, told a press conference.
Local officials have been told that sharing such information could leave sites vulnerable to sabotage or terrorist attacks.
In addition to being exempt from municipal regulations, rail companies are required to conduct their own inspections of tracks and bridges. This led to conflict in Calgary when a 102-car Canadian Pacific train derailed, leaving five cars filled with flammable petroleum distillate stranded on the Bonnybrook Bridge on June 27, reports the National Post.
The 101-year-old wooden bridge spans the Bow River, which on June 27 was swollen with the worst flooding in Calgary's history. The bridge buckled as the train passed over it and continued to drop a further 15 feet as local rescue teams scrambled to save the stranded railcars.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi lashed out at Canadian Pacific.
"How is it that we don't have regulatory authority over this when it's my guys down there risking their lives to fix it?" he said.
According to the National Post, city officials did not have access to the bridge's safety records.
The cars used to transport petrochemicals are also receiving scrutiny. Initial investigation of the Lac-Megantic disaster has revealed that some of the wrecked tanker cars were the DOT-111 type, long regarded as unsafe by both U.S. and Canadian authorities, reports Bloomberg News.
DOT-111 cars make up 70 percent of the Canadian railway fleet and roughly 65 percent of the United States fleet.
In a March, 2012 safety recommendation, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board(NTSB) warned that "DOT-111 tank cars have a high incidence of tank failures during accidents."
The NTSB has proposed rules requiring companies to retrofit the cars to prevent leaks and fires. The Canadian Transportation Safety Board has also recommended improvements to the cars.
Rail companies have resisted the proposed rules, asking that they be applied only to new tanker cars. They want existing tanker cars to be exempt.
In 2011, the Association of American Railroads estimated the cost of upgrading existing tanker cars at over $1 billion U.S. dollars.
Cleanup costs from derailments occurring between 2004 and 2008 cost nearly $63 billion, the group said.