US officials dispute claims that aging rail line is hazardous

Posted Aug. 23, 2013, at 2:37 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 23, 2013, at 6 p.m.

Federal and state rail safety officials said Friday that Maine, Montreal and Atlantic’s operations in the United States are safe. This contrasts with a Canadian railway’s published claims that MMA’s operations made the line too risky for shipping oil.

The Globe and Mail reported Thursday that Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. refused for several days to hand off rail cars carrying crude oil to Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway of Hermon because of “serious and alarming risks associated with MMA’s ongoing operations” — including, the newspaper reported, shipping crude over MMA’s aging rail infrastructure.

A train owned by MMA, which was carrying crude, crashed into a Quebec town in July, killing 47 people.

“The issue before the [Canadian Transportation Agency] is not one that is rooted in contractual or commercial law, but is instead one that is hearted in the protection of the safety and well-being of all Canadians,” the railway said.

But officials at the U.S. Federal Railroad Administration and Maine Department of Transportation said that their inspections and safety reviews of MMA had produced no evidence of hazardous conditions in the U.S.

“As part of our routine safety practice, the FRA has been conducting inspections using our Automated Track Inspection vehicle throughout Maine all summer and found no significant defects on MMA’s track,” an FRA spokesman said in a statement released early Friday. “We will continue to monitor their track, equipment and operating practices.”

Nate Moulton, director of the state’s industrial rail access program for the Maine Department of Transportation, said federal officials “have not brought anything to our attention that leads us to believe that MMA’s track here in Maine is unsafe to operate.”

Ed Greenberg, Canadian Pacific’s spokesman, said he was researching the issue and might respond later Friday.

Canadian Pacific stopped accepting shipping interchanges with MMA on Aug. 13, the same day that the Canadian Transportation Agency, that nation’s equivalent to the FRA, withdrew MMA’s certificate of fitness to operate a railroad in Canada. The U.S. government does not issue such certificates, but railways must comply with federal safety rules.

The Canadian Transportation Agency allowed MMA to resume shipping oil on Aug. 16. That permit will expire on Oct. 1. The company is in bankruptcy court in both countries seeking to sell its assets.

“While we disagree with this order, we have taken immediate steps to comply,” said E. Hunter Harrison, Canadian Pacific chief executive officer, in a statement released Thursday. “The CTA, as federal regulator, has satisfied itself that MMA is fit to operate and has adequate insurance to do so. We will review our legal options.”

Loaded with 72 tankers carrying oil, the unmanned MMA train started rolling down a slope at which it had been parked on July 6, derailing and exploding in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. The disaster has sparked safety reviews on both sides of the border and the FRA and CTA have issued emergency orders correcting many of the procedural flaws believed to have contributed to the derailment.

The president of MMA’s parent company, Ed Burkhardt, has denied any significant infrastructure problems with his company. He said that MMA is also going to be getting out of the oil-shipping business.

If problems were discovered, they could pose a significant hazard to the trustee a U.S. bankruptcy court is expected to operate MMA until a permanent replacement is found. Under federal monopoly laws, MMA must continue to operate at least in the short term to prevent harming the businesses that depend on it.

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