LINCOLN, Maine — Dan Summers knows that freight trains carrying ammonia, sodium hydroxide and other hazardous chemicals that could be part of a major disaster come through Lincoln most every day.
That’s why the public safety director, who helped organize a disaster drill featuring a train accident scenario last weekend, wasn’t too impressed Thursday with news that the federal government is now requiring U.S. companies moving crude oil by rail to tell state officials when 1 million gallons or more is going to be moving across their regions.
“I think it is a step in the right direction,” Summers said Thursday. “But if you are only going to make a mandate on the Bakken fuels, then what’s the sense? Why not go after making all tank cars safer?”
“I would like to know what is going through town, but there are other chemicals that are just as deadly that are being transported through town that are placarded,” Summers added. “Are all the other chemicals they ship any different from this fuel? I don’t think they have to notify the communities so long as they are placarded or using a tank meant for the job.”
Nate Moulton, director of the rail program at the Maine Department of Transportation, said it wasn’t immediately clear from the order, announced during a Senate subcommittee hearing Wednesday by U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who would receive the notification on the state end.
The order refers to the notification of State Emergency Response Commissions, which Moulton presumed would be the Maine Emergency Management Agency or its guiding authority. Adrienne Bennett, Gov. Paul LePage’s spokeswoman, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday.
Federal authorities have a difficult balance to achieve in seeking to make hazardous materials transport safer, Moulton said.
“When moving hazardous materials, you don’t want to broadcast when it is going to be where,” Moulton said. “Then if you are going to have a terrorist act, you might be giving them everything they need to know.”
The federal Transportation Safety Administration “would tell you that you don’t want to share this information,” Moulton said.
The order seems to strike that balance well, Moulton said. It informs single state agencies before transports of oil that exceed 1 million gallons, or about 35 cars. Before the order, hazardous material rail cars were placarded, indicating that they carried hazardous materials data with the engine crews hauling them.
The Lac-Megantic accident, in which 47 people died after a runaway Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railways train carrying oil exploded in the center of a Quebec town on July 6, is among several accidents that prompted the emergency order. The disaster also prompted a virtual elimination of Bakken crude shipments through Maine, Moulton said, making the emergency order almost a moot point for the state.
“I think since Jan. 1 for a total there has been like 40 carloads of oil shipped through Maine,” Moulton said. “It was a couple small groupings of cars. No unit trains where you have 70 or 80 cars.
“What has moved across the state has come across Pan Am.”
Pan American Railways officials did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday.
The nearest refinery that Maine freight haulers transport crude oil to, in New Brunswick, issued an advisory telling its customers that it would cease accepting shipments in older generation tankers such as the DOT-111, the flawed car that the MMA train pulled, starting in about six months, Moulton said.
This exceeds the other part of Foxx’s announcement — an advisory recommending that freight haulers phase out the DOT-111 — and should help make Maine rails much safer, Moulton said.