AUGUSTA, Maine — The news of a train derailment Thursday morning in northern Maine triggered renewed discussion at the State House about the safety of transporting hazardous materials, though the state says preparation for this kind of accident has been under way since at least 2011.
The consensus among lawmakers and environmental groups was unanimous: Maine avoided a potentially terrible environmental disaster because the train, which was carrying tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil from North Dakota, dumped only a tiny amount when 13 cars went off the rails.
“It could have been disastrous,” said Samantha Warren, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. “If what we’re seeing right now is the extent of the spill, it’s a miracle. We’re measuring this in drips, not gallons.”
Pan Am Railways Executive Vice President Cynthia Scarano said Thursday a large-scale environmental problem arising from this accident is unlikely given that the 13 tanker cars appear to have stayed intact.
The amount of oil that came from the tanker cars was miniscule, Scarano said. She described the contamination as spillage that typically accumulates around the two hatches atop the tank when tanks are filled or emptied.
“None of the cars are leaking,” Scarano said.
A tank rupture was unlikely given the slow speed at which the train probably was traveling. The track from Waterville up to Canada is rated Class 1, which means suitable for traffic moving no faster than 10 mph.
While the Federal Railroad Administration investigation of the accident is continuing, it appears that the train was moving no faster than the speed limit. Firefighters said train workers told them it was traveling 8 mph when the derailment occurred, which is logical, Scarano said.
The train appears to have been slowing to stop at a switch, Scarano said, ultimately due to arrive at a refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick. Pan Am was due to hand off the cars to New Brunswick Southern Railway in Mattawamkeag, she said.
Warren said crude oil began to be shipped through Maine on rails in 2011 and since then about 5 million barrels have made their way through Maine on rail cars, most of them from the Midwest en route to the St. John refinery. That’s a fraction of the approximately 65 million barrels of oil that come through Maine annually through a pipeline.
Warren said most of the department’s focus in the past when it came to the transport of oil has been on barges in the Gulf of Maine, but that is changing.
She said the state’s rails have carried untold millions of gallons of hazardous materials over the years — most associated with papermaking. She said the department has been working since 2011 on new emergency response measures for an oil spill on a railroad. Those measures include developing detailed maps of where the rails cross waterways, environmentally sensitive areas and sources of drinking water, and compiling a list of access points ranging from highways to woods trails that emergency responders can use to get to an accident.
But in general, Warren said, there is another source of environmental pollution that is much greater because of the frequency of incidents: At least one of Maine’s 400,000 home heating oil tanks fails nearly every day.
“From a response perspective, that is much more of a concern,” said Warren.
Pete Didisheim, advocacy director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said Maine’s natural landscape — and particularly its abundance of flowing water — makes it a bad route through which to transport oil.
“This incident is starting to raise serious questions about train tracks being used to move oil across our state,” said Didisheim. “We’re such a state of lakes and rivers.”
Legislators from northern districts said they are acutely aware of the fact that oil is being taken through the state on trains at a greater rate but said they’ve heard few concerns about it from their constituents.
The area where the derailment occurred is within the district represented by Sen. Emily Cain, D-Orono. She said Thursday afternoon that she was just hearing the news of the incident and that most of it was positive.
“We’re very lucky that no people were hurt and that the environmental impact was minimal,” Cain said Thursday at the State House.
Sen. Roger Sherman, R-Houlton, said he doesn’t have major concerns with oil being transported on rails.
“As long as they’re going slow and making sure the tracks are being upgraded, I don’t have a problem with it,” said Sherman. “I think the railroads are being very cautious.”
Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said that though the causes of the derailment weren’t yet clear on Thursday, he said the crash highlights the importance of a strong and steady flow of bond money to transportation infrastructure. Some bonds that have been approved by voters, including some transportation dollars, were held up by Gov. Paul LePage, who said recently that he will release them if the Legislature passes his plan to pay back debt to hospitals with revenues from a renegotiated state liquor contract.
“This is just another reason we need to put more money into the system for bonds,” said Jackson. “The troubling thing is that we’re falling behind on transportation infrastructure.”
Warren said the DEP’s focus at the moment is transferring oil from the crashed cars to others in order to remove the oil from the scene.
“This could have been much worse,” she said. “It just speaks to the resiliency of those cars. They definitely proved their mettle today.”
BDN reporter Nick Sambides, Jr. contributed to this story.