AUGUSTA, Maine — State lawmakers are trying to move quickly to review the safety of Maine’s railroads following the recent disaster in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.
On Tuesday, the Maine House of Representatives passed a legislative order offered by House Democratic Leader Seth Berry of Bowdoinham that could set the Legislature’s Transportation Committee to work later this summer.
Gov. Paul LePage also issued an executive order Tuesday directing the state’s Department of Transportation to review the safety of freight rail transportation in Maine.
While the Maine Senate failed to advance Berry’s order in the waning hours of the 2013 lawmaking session Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning, it is likely the committee will be called to work to review the situation and what it means for Maine as facts become available.
The order calls for the committee to examine the transportation of hazardous materials, including but not limited to petroleum products, and is prompted in large part by the recent devastation in Quebec.
A runaway train operated by the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway carrying tankers loaded with 50,000 barrels of oil from North Dakota that would have passed through Maine en route to a refinery in New Brunswick is blamed for the destruction of property and the deaths of at least a dozen people.
Three dozen more remained missing Wednesday as Canadian officials continued to investigate the cause of the mishap that led to a fiery explosion Saturday.
MDOT spokesman Ted Talbot said LePage’s response is a direct concern for public safety in Maine. He said the order came after LePage met with MDOT officials Monday for an update on the situation in Canada.
“Safety really is the first priority of transportation,” Talbot said. “[The governor] is doing it in the interest of public safety and in direct response to the Quebec incident.”
Talbot said MDOT would also welcome a conversation with the Legislature regarding what might be learned and whether new legislation would be appropriate in Maine.
Berry said that while some lawmakers, “were flat-out opposed to even looking at it” out of concern the state can’t regulate interstate commerce, he believes more are interested in learning what they can from the accident in Canada and making sure Maine is as protected against and prepared for a similar incident as it can be.
Berry said state and local governments in Maine would incur the costs of responding to a rail disaster and that it was just common sense that state officials would want to take a look at the issue closely.
Even when the details of the Lac-Megantic accident are known, Berry said a thorough review of rail safety in Maine makes sense.
“We should not assume that the way that happened is the only thing that could go wrong. We need to look at all of our systems because of the unprecedented amount that is now crossing our state and being delivered from the Bakken field and Alberta to the global market,” Berry said. “Maine is just a conduit here, and we have very little to gain and a heck of a lot to lose.”
The oil is primarily coming from the Bakken shale-oil field in North Dakota, with lesser amounts from neighboring Canada, where oil production has boomed in recent years. It is destined for gasoline and diesel refineries.
Trains carried nearly 5.3 million barrels of the light crude — more than 220 million gallons — across the state and into New Brunswick in 2012, and the volume is growing, according to the Associated Press.
Railroads that operate in Maine have said the increased business has resulted in more jobs and investment in the state. They have also previously said, moving oil by train is perfectly safe with upgraded tracks and modern tank cars.
LePage’s executive order addresses several specific issues and requires the MDOT to report back findings as they become available or within 90 days. The order also asks for recommendations as warranted. That information would also be made available to the Legislature if requested, Talbot said.
Talbot said while the state has no authority to regulate interstate commerce by rail, which is the domain of the federal government, the state did have a great interest in protecting the safety of citizens and property.
MDOT would be reviewing all available safety reports, request additional inspections as warranted, request a report on the results of the inspection of the track, equipment and operations and utilizing all the information, as it becomes available, on the cause of the Quebec crash to reassess the safety of Maine’s rail infrastructure, Talbot said.
Maine Senate President Justin Alfond, said Wednesday the Senate held Berry’s legislative order only because it felt premature to call the Transportation Committee back to work without more details on what transpired at Lac-Megantic.
“That investigation is just starting and daily the facts are being uncovered so we just felt it was premature,” Alfond said.
That’s a sentiment shared by the LePage administration, Talbot said.
Alfond said he and others in the Senate agree the Legislature should use some of the eight days the committee is allowed to meet outside of an official lawmaking session to do a careful review of Maine’s railway systems.
Senators on the Transportation Committee were concerned and interested in learning as much as they could and what, if any legislative response would be appropriate.
“Everyone is very interested and their part is always to ensure that public safety of our rail system is analyzed and looked at always and especially in light of what happened in Canada,” Alfond said.
Berry said he was not calling for a moratorium on the transportation of petroleum by rail in Maine but that the increased volume of crude oil transported through the state was concerning.
“It is very clear, that what happened in Lac-Megantic, could have very well happened in Maine,” Berry said. He said that while in the past Maine has had a relatively good record on rail safety, the new volumes means an increased risk.
Other Maine agencies including the Maine Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Environmental Protection would also be instrumental to any review of rail safety, Berry said.
Berry’s order calls on Maine’s Legislature to review and, if necessary, propose law changes in 2013 that would help minimize the risk of a similar disaster here.
The very nature of rail means thousands of Mainers live and work close to the tracks, he said.
“Many of our most populated communities are where the rail lines come through,” Berry said. “Obviously there are historic reasons for that, that’s where the lines needed to go to deliver both freight and passengers so the layout it really is intended to go through the most populated places.”