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Black smoke billows from the derailed CN Rail train. Six of the cars carried hazardous and highly-flammable materials. (Screenshot via CBC)

Black smoke billows from the derailed CN Rail train. Six of the cars carried hazardous and highly-flammable materials. (Screenshot via CBC)

Fiery Derailment Puts Spotlight on Hazardous Train Shipments

"We know trains will continue to derail and we know we still stand unprotected from these types of dangerous accidents," scientist warns

Lauren McCauley

The fiery derailment of a train carrying petroleum products and other hazardous chemicals in Saskatchewan on Tuesday puts yet another "spotlight" on the dangers posed to people and planet by transporting oil and other hazardous materials, environmental groups charged on Wednesday.

Residents described the scene as a "flash of light," after 26 of the train's 100 cars went off the rails. According to a CN Rail representative, six of those cars carried hazardous materials: two laden with petroleum distillates, while the other four either held hydrochloric acid or caustic soda.

The accident occurred at roughly 10:40 AM CST. Nearby residents, including all those living in the town of Clair, Saskatchewan, were evacuated until Wednesday morning while school children were kept indoors because of concern over the hazardous smoke, which continued to billow from the site hours after the crash.

Tim Tschetter, who farms near the wreckage, described seeing the crash while driving nearby. "We seen a flash of light," he told CBC. "It didn't really make sense until we seen the smoke. Then we realized it was a fire or an explosion."

No one has been reported injured. On Wednesday, investigators with Canada's Transportation Safety Board arrived on the scene to determine a cause for the crash.

"The municipalities themselves, the communities have no power, no control, and in this case no information even over what’s being run through the rail lines."
—Adam Scott, Environment Defence

Environmental advocacy groups were quick to note that the crash serves to highlight the dangers of poor rail safety and the overall risks in transporting such hazardous materials—even as the oil and rail industries push to further degrade those standards.

"The freight rail lines actually go right through the center of almost every major urban center in the entire country, including small towns, communities across the country, so the risk of accidents is significant," said Adam Scott of Environment Defence. Scott said that in Canada, rail companies, like CN Rail, are not required to publicly disclose the types of hazardous materials being transported on trains. 

"It’s unacceptable," Scott continued. "The municipalities themselves, the communities have no power, no control, and in this case no information even over what’s being run through the rail lines."

The crash occurred days after it was made public that two train industry groups had petitioned the U.S. government to drop the already-weak requirement to notify local emergency responders about the transport of hazardous materials through communities. The U.S. Department of Transportation, for the time being, chose to uphold their May 7 emergency order requiring such notification.

Mollie Matteson, senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said that this accident is but "another reminder" of the risks posed to people and wildlife by "rail shipment of flammable products, such as crude oil."

"We know trains will continue to derail and we know we still stand unprotected from these types of dangerous accidents in the U.S.," Matteson said. In July, the U.S. DOT proposed new rail safety regulations—which environmental groups decried for being too "weak"—calling for a two-to-five-year phase-out of older tank cars, including the widely used, puncture prone DOT-111 cars. Last week, top oil and railroad lobbyists pressed for those regulations to be even further loosened.

CBD notes that it wasn't until the Lac-Mégantic disaster in July 2013, which killed 47 people, that any real government attention had been paid to the hazards of shipping dangerous goods by rail.  On Wednesday, the coroner reports for the 47 victims were finally released. In the reports, Quebec coroner Martin Clavet slammed the poor regulations of the rail industry, saying the deaths were "violent" and "avoidable."

These cautions come as politicians and energy industry groups continue to hold a public and, as many say, "false debate" over the merits of pipeline versus rail transport of fossil fuels. However, environmental groups and a growing sector of society say that both pose a grave threat to our planet and ought to be discarded in favor of more renewable energy options.


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