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Railway executive says fiery accident would not have happened in Maine

A burnt-out vehicle sits near the wreckage of a train car following a train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, on Sunday.
Christinne Muschi | Reuters
A burnt-out vehicle sits near the wreckage of a train car following a train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, on Sunday.
Posted July 08, 2013, at 7:21 p.m.
Last modified July 09, 2013, at 8:13 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — The fiery accident that occurred in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, would not have happened in Maine because there would have been no layover where the train could be left unattended, the chairman of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway said Monday.

The train had been hauling crude oil from North Dakota to Irving Oil Ltd.’s refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick, and was parked without a driver outside the Quebec town when it began rolling downhill, picking up speed, and derailed about 1 a.m. Saturday.

Ed Burkhardt, MMA chairman, said Monday afternoon that the derailed train had been scheduled to run along the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic line in Maine through Brownville Junction and then along the Eastern Maine Railway through Vanceboro before crossing into New Brunswick.

Burkhardt said there would have been no crew change in Maine or layover where the train would have been left unattended.

The railway chairman said the engineer had properly deployed hand brakes on the train cars at a siding in Nantes — about 8 miles west of Lac-Megantic — and left the air compressor running on the locomotive to keep the air brakes on. When local firefighters put out a small engine fire on Friday night, however, that compressor was turned off, which later allowed the cars to begin their descent toward Lac-Megantic.

Burkhardt said critics have claimed that the crash was the result of poor infrastructure but he said that was not the case.

Still, the company will review all equipment, training and tracks, he said.

In Maine, emergency management officials contacted Monday said they work regularly with industries and local fire departments to plan for how to respond in the event of a hazardous material spill and fire whether it be from a train or a tanker on the highway.

The coordinator of the hazardous technological program for the Augusta-based Maine Emergency Management Agency said Monday that it was too early to say whether anything else could have been done to respond better to the train crash early Saturday in Lac-Megantic.

“I’m not sure anything could have been done differently. We don’t know what happened yet,” Rob Gardner, technological hazard coordinator for MEMA, said Monday morning.

Gardner said he was shocked by the reports that there were explosions involving trains carrying crude oil since that is not an explosive material. Burkhardt said there were no explosions but significant fires from the crude oil igniting, perhaps from sparks of the trains going off the rail.

Maine Department of Environmental Protection officials said Monday the Quebec explosion did not endanger the state’s air or water quality and that they continue to monitor the potential environmental effect on Maine.

DEP Commissioner Patricia Aho also said in a statement released Monday afternoon that the oil spill in the Chaudiere River, which flows north approximately 115 miles to the St. Lawrence River, has not affected Maine waters.

She also said the state immediately offered equipment and personnel to assist Canadian responders.

“DEP has 25 responders who are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year to quickly and safely respond to the over 3,000 annual hazardous spills in Maine,” Aho said.

Jessamine Logan, the DEP director of communications, said officials from the department and train companies have been working together since last year on how to reach isolated areas in Maine in the event of a train derailment involving hazardous materials.

That group began working together in November 2012, a year after the state was informed that crude oil was to be carried along the rail lines of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic and Pan Am railways.

When asked whether there would be any changes to the way the DEP would respond to an accident as a result of Saturday’s incident, Logan said emergency preparations are continuously reviewed for any improvements.

“We will see if there are any lessons that can be learned from this,” Logan said.

Gardner said training by MEMA, hazardous material teams and local fire departments on how to respond to such spills is done on a regular basis.

MEMA, for example, is working with railroad officials to hold training sessions for local emergency responders over the next several weeks in Aroostook County. These training sessions have been in the works for several months and not associated with the past weekend’s train disaster in neighboring Quebec.

The state also provides training and equipment to 19 hazardous materials teams that are strategically located across Maine, he said. Those teams are located in Madawaska, Presque Isle, Houlton, Orono-Old Town, Waterville, Lewiston-Auburn, Portland, South Portland, Brunswick, Skowhegan, Ellsworth, Augusta, Rumford, Windham, Scarborough, Kennebunk, Searsport, Jonesboro, Paris and Newcastle.

Gardner stressed that there are other fire departments throughout the state that have received hazardous materials training and are well prepared for dealing with such an incident but which are not part of the state-equipped teams.

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