Maine has no plans to halt oil rail shipments after Quebec tragedy

Reuters News

7/8/2013 11:35:27 AM - Reuters News

By Dave Sherwood

HERMON, Maine (Reuters) - Maine has no plans to review shipments of crude through the state on rail lines after a deadly oil train derailment just across the border in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic over the weekend, the state Department of Transportation said.

The train was hauling about 50,000 barrels of crude from North Dakota's Bakken shale formation to Irving Oil's 300,000 barrel per day (bpd) refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick.

A derailment and explosion early on Saturday near the small town of Lac-Megantic killed 13, with another 37 still missing Monday night, authorities said.

Nearly 30,000 bpd of crude crossed through Maine in March, up from under 2,000 bpd a year earlier, as part of a surge in oil by rail transit made possible by the U.S. shale boom. The growth in oil shipments through Maine has inspired protests among environmental groups in the state.

Ted Talbot, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation, called the Quebec accident "tragic," but said the state had no plans to review movements of crude oil through Maine.

"It's on the same parallel as a tractor-trailer accident. It's private commerce and we don't get involved," Talbot said.

"There's no appetite to curb or otherwise alter the shipments of crude in Maine," he said.

PROTESTS

While the cause of the disaster, which occurred on the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, has yet to be determined, environmentalists in Maine were quick to highlight the disaster as a wakeup call to the risks of the burgeoning crude transport trade that they have been protesting.

In the sleepy central Maine town of Fairfield on June 27, six protesters were arrested blocking tracks belonging to Pan Am Railways, just north of a yard where protesters alleged a train carrying Bakken crude was stationed.

At a small protest Monday outside the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic headquarters in Hermon, Maine, environmental activists spoke in French in a show of solidarity to neighbors in Quebec, then called for a moratorium on the transport of crude through the state, citing ailing infrastructure, inadequate safeguards and environmental risk.

"The tragedy in Lac-Megantic is the inevitable result of a system that's lost its moral compass," said Reed Brugger, of Freedom, Maine, an organizer with 350 Maine and one of six protesters arrested blocking tracks last month in nearby Fairfield. "The insanity of this accident makes it a clarion call to find another path."

An employee of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railways blocked access to the company's headquarters nearby and said company officials declined to comment.

Glen Brand, an official at environmental advocates Sierra Club, echoed calls Monday for a moratorium, saying, "This is all risk and no gain" for Maine, and promised to pursue tougher safety laws and regulations in the coming legislative session.

All of Maine's seven active freight railways are authorized to ship petroleum products, say transportation officials, though only two - Pan Am and Montreal, Maine and Atlantic - reported shipping crude in the past two years.

For companies like Pan Am, which shipped 2.3 million barrels of U.S. crude last year, the shipments are one way to offset its flagging coal transport business.

Talbot said that any discussions to change or improve safety for rail procedures would start at the federal level.

"Up to the point that the public outcry demands a reaction, government will stay out of private commerce," he said. "When a crash happens, you hear about it, but you don't hear about the many successful loads that pass through the state every day."

(Reporting by Dave Sherwood; editing by Matthew Lewis and Philip Barbara)