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Workers continue digging on the site of the derailment in the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec July 11, 2013. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

Environmental groups hold vigil for Lac-Megantic train explosion victims

PORTLAND, Maine — As church bells rang in the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic to mark the two-year anniversary of the oil train derailment that killed 48 people, climate change activists in Maine held vigils around the state expressing concern about the potential for a future disaster.

The state-level arm of international climate change group 350.org and the Sierra Club held a vigil Monday to mark the two-year anniversary and raise concern not specifically about train safety but the oil sands and shale oil boom that has led to more crude oil traveling by train across the country.

“Like the driverless train accelerating toward the unsuspecting town of Lac-Megantic, our exploitation of fossil fuels has itself continued to accelerate, notwithstanding that tragedy,” said Lee Chisolm, head of the group’s Greater Portland chapter.

Chisolm said the accident, which happened after too few handbrakes were set on the train overnight and other safety protocols were not followed, provides “a powerful metaphor” for action on climate change.

“There was not a whistle, not a light,” Chisolm said. “The train was going 10 times faster than it should have been going, and the disaster was inevitable.”

Chisolm tied increased harvesting of oil from shale and tar sands to the problems off Maine’s coast of ocean temperature rise and acidification that threatens sea life.

Chisolm’s group is part of the organization led by author and activist Bill McKibben, which has led national opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline and in Maine to the reversal of the Portland Pipe Line Corp.’s line in order to carry tar sands oil from Canada to South Portland’s waterfront.

The discovery of gas-rich shale in the middle of the United States and oil sands in Canada has opened up export markets for the fuel and last year led the United States to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s top oil-producing country.

With insufficient pipelines to support the surge in production, more oil is traveling by rail. Researchers at the Manhattan Institute found that trains are about 3.5 times as likely to have safety problems than pipelines transporting oil.

Related: Oil train disaster settlement fund reaches $345 million.

Organizers of the event Monday read off the dates and locations of 10 other train explosions that have occurred since the Lac-Megantic disaster, five of which happened this year. Some of those explosions resulted in evacuations of nearby areas, according to media reports, but they have not killed anyone, organizers said Monday.

Suzanne McLain, a Durham resident and member of 350 Maine, said she drove through Lac-Megantic almost a year after the disaster and said what she saw on in news photographs and video did not capture the full scene.

“The devastation just takes your breath away,” McLain said.

In response to the Lac-Megantic accident, the Federal Railroad Administration immediately required at least two people to serve on crews of trains carrying hazardous materials and in May released new safety rules, such as requiring trains to have electronically controlled brakes by 2021 and to meet new design standards by October 2015.

The new rules also require more stringent cargo checks, which was an issue in the Lac-Megantic accident. Canadian investigators found the train’s shipment was improperly labeled, carrying a more flammable fuel than the crude oil it was supposed to be carrying.

The nonprofit investigative news outlet ProPublica reported there have been no crude oil train accidents in Maine and figures from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection show that crude oil shipments through the state largely stopped after the Lac-Megantic disaster on July 6, 2013.

About 15,000 barrels of crude oil came through the state by rail in March 2014. The only other month with any crude oil shipped since then was February, when about 37,128 barrels came through the state on Pan Am Railways lines, according to DEP figures.

There were no oil shipments through the state in March, April or May. The Central Maine and Quebec Railway — the name of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway that filed for bankruptcy after the Lac-Megantic accident — has agreed not to ship crude oil again through the town until at least January 2016, according to the Associated Press.

The two-year anniversary Monday also marked the statute of limitations for victims to file claims against defendants in the case. Claims against the defendants had been stayed while the trustee for the bankrupt railroad negotiated a settlement fund that reached $431 million (Canadian) on the day that stay was lifted, allowing victims to file claims and preserve their right to pursue wrongful death claims if the settlement falls apart.

The Canadian Pacific Railway has opposed a judge’s approval of the settlement in Canadian court, claiming it does not bear any liability for the accident and that granting the other defendants immunity through the settlement would not allow it to counter-sue them in the event they face separate lawsuits from victims.

The Quebec judge has not ruled on Canadian Pacific’s request to reject the settlement.

The crash killed 47 people in its immediate aftermath, and one man — a firefighter who discovered his ex-girlfriend dead amid the rubble — committed suicide in January 2014, which a coroner determined was in response to the traumatic event.

 

This article was written by Darren Fishell from Bangor Daily News, Maine and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.