HERMON, Maine — Environmental activists demanded a halt to all Maine oil tanker traffic until state rail safety improves during a protest Monday near the headquarters of the railroad company that owns the runaway train that destroyed much of a Quebec town.
Saying that a surge in tankers on state rails was overwhelming an already stressed railroad infrastructure, the 15 protesters at Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway Inc. also sought an independent federal review of state rail track conditions and use.
“What we are experiencing is a gold rush in oil in Maine,” said Nancy Galland, a member of 350 Maine, during a noon press conference. “It’s corporate greed. They are looking at making as much profit as they can right now, but they [state railroad tracks] were never meant to be used like this.”
The protesters representing 350 Maine and Maine Earth First spoke in support of the victims of the train explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, a Canadian town a few miles from the Maine border. No representatives from Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, the train’s owner, were present.
A company-employed security guard politely stopped media from approaching the corporate offices on Iron Road after the press conference.
Maine Department of Transportation officials said Monday that they have no plans to halt shipments or review how crude oil is shipped through Maine. According to a Reuters report, nearly 30,000 barrels per day of crude crossed through Maine in March, up from under 2,000 barrels per day a year earlier, as part of a surge in oil-by-rail transit caused by the U.S. shale boom.
The 73-car train was carrying crude oil from North Dakota to the Irving Oil Ltd. refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick, according to Reuters. The train had been parked without a driver outside the Quebec town when it began rolling downhill early Saturday. Four tanker cars on the runaway train caught fire and exploded after derailing. At least 13 people died and 40 were missing. Firefighters who cut power to brake lines while fighting an on-board blaze accidentally caused the incident, a rail official said.
The growth in oil shipments through Maine has led to protests by members of state environmental groups. Protesters on Monday said the Quebec incident was an outgrowth of the nation’s unhealthy use of fossil fuels and the power wielded by oil companies.
“Our fossil fuel addiction is turning vast areas of the planet into environmental sacrifice zones,” said Read Brugger, a member of 350 Maine. “We know that continuing to use fossil fuels until every drop is out of the ground will literally cook the planet.”
“No train should ever have been loaded with Bakken crude and taken that fateful trip across a continent” to Lac-Megantic, Brugger said. “I am overwhelmed by the inevitability and insanity of these deaths.”
Maine Department of Transportation officials reviewed safety protocols and met with Gov. Paul LePage on Monday to discuss the state’s role in maintaining track safety. An interstate issue, track maintenance is the responsibility of the Federal Rail Administration. The state assists FRA in emergencies and upon request, said Ted Talbot, MDOT spokesman.
“Because the investigation [of the Quebec incident] is ongoing we don’t know what the cause of it is,” Talbot said Monday. “We are addressing the rail piece because that is what is in front of us.”
The protesters cited a Pan Am Railways derailment in Mattawamkeag on March 7 in which 13 full 31,000-gallon train tanker cars derailed and tipped, spilling about a gallon of oil yards from the Penobscot River, and a 31-car Pan Am Railways derailment in Bucksport in May 2012. Those cars tumbled into the Penobscot and spilled between 400 and 500 gallons of a nonhazardous synthetic latex chemical used in papermaking.
A Maine Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman said the lack of spillage from the Mattawamkeag derailment was miraculous.
Protesters said they worry that track and safety conditions would cause a fire in Maine on the same scale as the one in Quebec.
“You have to upgrade the tracks to handle all this new traffic and they are not doing it with rail,” said Jim Freeman, who was among six people arrested in Fairfield on June 27 while protesting the transportation of crude oil through Maine.
Christian “Will” Neils, a member of Maine Earth First, conceded that protesters had no evidence that Maine’s tracks were poorly maintained or that any Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway negligence caused the Quebec fires.
What protesters have, he said, is fear and experience. It has been the group’s experience that “no matter what level of corporate irresponsibility occurs, the taxpayer ends up being held responsible for it,” Neils said.