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Crude Oil Catastrophes Part 2: 'A Perfect Storm'

On July 6, 2013, a runaway train with 72 tanker cars of Bakken shale oil derailed in the heart of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.
Sûreté du Québec
On July 6, 2013, a runaway train with 72 tanker cars of Bakken shale oil derailed in the heart of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.

In 2013, a train carrying crude oil derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, killing 47 people and incinerating the heart of town.

It was like an earthquake … It was a war noise,” said Gilles Fluet. “The heat was so intense that my clothes on the explosion side got burned.”

The dangers of oil trains are part of the controversy around Enbridge Line 5 – a pipeline running through the Straits of Mackinac.

Train derailments have led Canadian officials to promote pipelines: the safest way to transport crude oil. But as we heard in part one of this series, pipelines have their own set of risks.

Some say we shouldn’t have to choose between outdated pipelines and dangerous railways. Part two considers the alternatives.

Host: Morgan Springer
Producer: Patrick Shea
Editor: Morgan Springer
Editing Support: Peter Payette & Taylor Wizner
Music: Blue Dot Sessions & Podington Bear


MORGAN SPRINGER, HOST: On a warm summer night, Gilles Fluet was walking towards his home in Lac-Mégantic, Canada. It’s a small town near Quebec’s border with Maine.

It was late on a Friday — technically a Saturday morning. And Gilles had just left the Musi-Cafe, a popular venue downtown.

FLUET: Before leaving, I went on and greeted all the people that were still there. Musicians and everybody.

SPRINGER: As he crossed a set of railroad tracks, Gilles felt a rush of air and turned to see a train fly by, just a few feet behind him.

FLUET: I did not hear anything, because there was no running engine. No braking sound. There were no lights, the security signals were not on – nothing to alert that a train was coming.

SPRINGER: Behind the lead locomotive were 72 tanker cars full of crude oil. There was no conductor, no engineer; no crew at all on the train. The runaway train roared down the steep slope towards the heart of town. There was a sharp curve in the track ahead. When it reached that curve – going about 60 miles per hour – it derailed right beside the bar Gilles had just left.

FLUET: It was like an earthquake sound. It is hard to describe. It was– it was a war noise.

SPRINGER: Within seconds, Gilles was staring into an inferno.

FLUET: There was an explosion. There was fire. Then another explosion followed. We could hear some people cry – people from the other side of the train that were yelling.

SPRINGER: Gilles said the largest explosion sent a mushroom cloud high into the sky. Buildings at the heart of town were catching on fire, one after another.

FLUET: The heat was so intense that my clothes on the explosion side got burned. I had the impression that all the city was going to go vanish.

SPRINGER: This is Points North, a show about the land, water and inhabitants of the Upper Great Lakes. I’m Morgan Springer.

Today, part two of our series on transporting crude oil. We’re looking at times it’s gone horribly wrong and what that has to do with Enbridge Line 5 – a controversial pipeline running through the Upper Great Lakes.

Last episode, we heard about an oil spill in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Now, the train derailment in Quebec. These tragedies have something in common. Because both came from a failure to act and a lack of enforcement.

Reporter Patrick Shea has the story: “A Perfect Storm.”

PATRICK SHEA, BY-LINE: Locomotive 5017 left the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota on June 30th, 2013, pulling a long line of tanker cars behind it. Its destination was the Irving Refinery in St. John, New Brunswick more than 3,000 miles away.

This procession of highly flammable fuels made its way through Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago and Detroit. It passed through southern Ontario and switched conductors just south of Montreal. That conductor guided the train to the town of Nantes — about 7 miles away and 400 feet uphill from Lac-Mégantic.

BRUCE CAMPBELL: He gets there, he parks it, he goes to his place of rest.

SHEA: That’s Bruce Campbell. He published a book about this rail disaster in 2018.

CAMPBELL: Shortly after he leaves, there’s a fire.

SHEA: The engine of the lead locomotive had burst into flames. The local fire department arrived on the scene between 11 and midnight.

CAMPBELL: But in putting out the fire, they dismantled the independent break on the locomotive.

SHEA: The conductor had set an air break on the lead engine.

CAMPBELL: Once the air runs out, the train starts to move. So it started to move about 1 o'clock at night.

SHEA: And you’ve already heard a bit about what happened next.

NEWSCLIP MONTAGE: Oh, mon dieu. Mon Dieu. Oh my God. Seventy-two tanker cars loaded with crude oil broke loose and hurdled down … With just about everyone here wondering how many people they know have been lost.

SHEA: The fires and explosions after that oil train derailed continued for two and half days. The heart of downtown was incinerated.

The Lac-Mégantic rail disaster claimed 47 lives. Most of those people were inside the Musi-Cafe that night, at the event Gilles had just left.

These were families, friends, neighbors, musicians — members of a tight-knit community, a community that would never be the same.

Robert Bellefleur is a lifelong resident of this small Quebec town.

BELLEFLEUR: In the past, the train used to bring life to the city. It would bring wheat, the passengers, food … But now, things have changed a lot.

SHEA: Robert said this community was built around the railroad. His grandfather and both his uncles worked in that industry.

BELLEFLEUR: Now, the train brings mostly industrial products – dangerous products such as petroleum. Then the train no longer brings life but death.

SHEA: Just a few months after the catastrophe the tracks were repaired. And long, heavy trains full of hazardous products started rumbling through town again. That didn’t sit well with Robert.

So he helped form a citizen’s coalition that advocates for stricter regulations on Canada’s railways. They take it upon themselves to inspect the tracks regularly and report poor conditions. They’ve petitioned to get a bypass built around the downtown area. And now, they’re working to make sure that bypass takes the safest possible route.

Robert says their motive is simple.

BELLEFLEUR: Why? So that this don’t happen again. Because the problems related to railroad safety are constantly present in North America – either in Canada or the United States.

SHEA: Bruce Campbell, the author we heard from earlier, has researched these problems with railroad safety extensively. He’s a political economist, and former director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. After the Lac-Mégantic disaster, Bruce wanted to know the true cause.

He found that multiple railroad companies along that train’s route had ignored a bunch of red flags. There weren’t enough brakes being set, there were problems with the engine – the one that later caught fire – and the tracks were in very poor condition, which made the trip take longer and the conductor fatigued.

CAMPBELL: The deck was really stacked against him, given what was happening all along that route that day. He’s exhausted, he’s working on his day off.

SHEA: And working alone. Single-person crews didn’t used to be allowed, but Bruce says lobbyists with the railroad industry successfully changed that about a year before the disaster.

CAMPBELL: MMA was at the forefront of wanting that. It was allowed to do it in Maine.

SHEA: MMA, as in Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway.

CAMPBELL: And it wanted to have permission to do that in Canada. That was a huge factor in the disaster, and we can talk about that if you want.

SHEA: Bruce points to a lot of “huge factors” in his book – systemic issues. And many of them are similar to the single person crew issue: a relaxing of the rules over time.

And then there’s the issue with the tanker cars holding the oil. The model is called a DOT-111.

CAMPBELL: They were created to haul things like corn oil, but not volatile products.

SHEA: The steel on these cars – it’s pretty thin, easily punctured, which means a higher risk of leaking and exploding.

Federal transportation safety boards in the U.S. and in Canada had been warning for years that it was a bad idea to move hazardous products in these DOT-111s, which earned the nickname “soda can cars.”

Those safety boards advocated for more heavy-duty train cars with thick steel jackets to prevent puncturing. But the regulators themselves – they didn’t heed those warnings.

CAMPBELL: You know, they just – they just let it happen. Unfortunately the transportation safety boards can recommend and warn, but they don’t have the power to enforce. … It was just a perfect storm of corporate negligence and regulatory failure that produced this tragedy.

SHEA: That phrase: a perfect storm. It came up a lot when I interviewed people about the oil spill in the Kalamazoo River, too. The same kind of negligence and lack of action from regulators also played a role there.

You might remember that Enbridge was aware of cracks in Line 6B for five years before the spill. That’s because regulators had notified the company of those issues. But Enbridge didn’t make repairs, and there was no follow up – no enforcement. And when the rupture first happened, Enbridge ignored alarms and increased the pumping pressure.

Now, you may have forgotten what this series is all about. We’re looking at what these two catastrophes can tell us about Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac. Many people are afraid of a “perfect storm” there, too.

LIZ KIRKWOOD: I mean the writing is on the wall that it’s not a question of if, but when line five ruptures.

SHEA: That’s Liz Kirkwood, the director of an environmental non-profit called For Love of Water, or FLOW. Her group has been calling for a Line 5 shut down since 2011.

KIRKWOOD: It doesn’t make sense to expose one of the most globally unique freshwater bodies on this planet to an oil disaster. We know it’s going to happen.

SHEA: Liz says her feeling of certainty about an impending spill comes from a series of warning signs. One of the most significant was when a boat’s anchor struck the pipelines on April Fool’s Day, 2018. It damaged the pipeline, but no oil is known to have spilled.

KIRKWOOD: It was this wakeup call. And April, it turns out, could be one of the worst times for a pipeline disaster because this is the time of year where there are ice flows, and … any kind of cleanup recovery effort is extremely, extremely difficult.

SHEA: About two years later, there was another close call. A ship dragged a cable over the pipeline and caused more damage. That prompted Michigan’s Attorney General to order an emergency shutdown, which lasted two months as repairs were made.

Last episode, we heard about how Enbridge, the company that owns Line 5, is now watching closely for ships that might be dragging anchors along the bottom of the Straits. But Liz says that’s not enough.

KIRKWOOD: Why would you risk it? That’s what we’re looking at. That the harm is so great.

SHEA: Liz’s organization, FLOW, commissioned a researcher with Michigan State University to study what the economic impact of a spill might be. That study estimated about $45 billion in losses. That includes drinking water and natural resource damage, as well as impacts to industries like tourism, shipping and fisheries. Oil by pipeline has its own risks.

So how can companies safely deliver crude oil across the continent?

Enbridge says if Line 5 were to shut down, it would take 800 rail cars per day to move the same amount of oil and natural gas liquids. The company says Line 5 is safer than that. And statistically, they’re right, pipelines are safer than oil by rail.

In Canada, for example, since the Lac-Mégantic disaster, at least seven more trains carrying oil have derailed and exploded. Luckily, those weren’t near population centers.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pointed to those incidents as a reason to keep pipelines open.

JUSTIN TRUDEAU: The fact is we know that oil in rail cars is more expensive, more polluting and, most importantly, more dangerous for Canadians and our communities.

SHEA: Canadian officials applied that thinking to Line 5 last week at a U.S. Senate hearing.

Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources, Jonathan Wilkinson, said shutting down Line 5 would be a bad move.

JONATHAN WILKINSON: There’s no point in going backwards here in terms of energy security. That would be a step backwards.

SHEA: No one seemed to push back on that. But U.S. Senator Joe Manchin did address the fact that there are environmental concerns. He asked Wilkinson about the pipeline’s safety record.

MANCHIN: Has the pipeline ever had – have we ever had a leak or a problem with that pipeline?

WILKINSON: Not to my knowledge. Not anything significant.

SHEA: History says otherwise. Over a million gallons of oil have spilled from Line 5. It wasn’t one big spill, but at least 33 incidents since 1968, according to federal records. In 1999, there were multiple explosions near Crystal Falls, Michigan after natural gas liquids leaked from Line 5. That fire burned for 36 hours.

These could be warning signs. But they weren’t brought before Congress last week.

Liz Kirkwood, with FLOW, says it doesn’t have to be either/or. It doesn’t have to be the Line 5 pipeline or a surge in oil by rail.

KIRKWOOD: I don’t see it in those black and white terms, because some of the volume of the hazardous liquids would be transported in the additional capacity of current pipelines that have been expanded.

SHEA: There are pipelines that start and end at the same refineries Line 5 does. Enbridge has increased the amount of crude oil they transport through some existing pipelines and some of them have the capacity to transport more. So there is a way to get that product from point A to point B without Line 5 or 800 rail cars. It just might mean a cut to the company’s profits.

KIRKWOOD: Enbridge is coming to this with the expectation that they get to transport 540,000 barrels per day.

SHEA: The amount Line 5 moves right now.

KIRKWOOD: Enbridge always tries to win the argument by saying ‘OK, well if you don’t have it in pipelines, then you’re gonna have these other modes of transportation that are much more dangerous.’ But that argument is really a straw man.

SHEA: Robert Bellefleur saw the danger of rail first-hand in Lac-Mégantic. He doesn’t think people should have to choose between pipelines and oil trains at all.

BELLEFLEUR: Listen, oil transportation – may it be through train or through pipelines – both are dangerous, both of them are not built in a safe way to avoid leaks. And the old pipeline built in 1953, the Line number 5, is no good now.

GILBERT CARETTE: We understand why your governor is wondering about that.

SHEA: Gilbert Carette is another member of Robert’s coalition for rail safety in Lac-Mégantic. Gilbert and Robert say the danger of transporting oil is a good reason to speed up a transition to renewable energy.

CARETTE: The way the world is going you’re going to get killed by climate change or by a transportation catastrophe. Pipeline burst or trains derailing. We have to go in another way and find some other source of energy, no?

SHEA: Canada and the U.S. have both set ambitious goals for carbon neutrality by 2050. But goals don’t guarantee action.

The fate of the Line 5 pipeline is in limbo, for now. Michigan’s efforts to shut it down are stalled in court. Enbridge has proposed relocating it in a tunnel underneath the Straits. That project is still at least 6 years away if everything goes smoothly.

So, there could be a shutdown; there could be a tunnel. Until then, there could be a perfect storm.

SPRINGER: Reporter Patrick Shea. Coming up next time: The tension between two treaties that could decide the fate of Line 5.

JASON KENNEY: That’s why I call on the United States government to join Canada in demanding that the Governor of Michigan respect the 1977 … Pipeline Transit Treaty by abandoning her efforts…

WHITNEY GRAVELLE: When our ancestors signed those, they were exchanges. In exchange for this land and water, this right would continue to exist forever.

SPRINGER: That’s part 3 of our series on Points North.

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Patrick Shea was a natural resources reporter at Interlochen Public Radio. Before joining IPR, he worked a variety of jobs in conservation, forestry, prescribed fire and trail work. He earned a degree in natural resources from Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, and his interest in reporting grew as he studied environmental journalism at the University of Montana's graduate school.