Nothing in 33 years of firefighting prepared Tim Pellerin for the inferno before him.
The fire chief from Rangeley, Maine, had just arrived in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, last year in the early morning hours of July 6, five hours after a train pulling 72 tankers of light crude oil derailed and exploded, killing 47 people.
The explosion destroyed six city blocks. Several of the 30 burning buildings were incinerated. Many ruptured tanker cars were bunched together like folds in an accordion. Still others, intact, could detonate at any second, and Pellerin could tell that much of the 1.5 million gallons of spilled oil had ignited and poured through the small Quebec town like lava.
Canadian firefighters told Pellerin that “they actually saw people step out of their homes and be vaporized by the [burning] oil,” Pellerin told the U.S. Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee in Washington on Wednesday.
And officials from Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, whose train had rolled away and ignited, did nothing to help, said Pellerin, who led a group of Franklin County firefighters into Lac-Megantic, about 60 miles from Rangeley.
“As of two weeks ago we learned that the cars were placarded incorrectly,” Pellerin said Wednesday. “On [that] Saturday afternoon, three representatives from the railroad showed up, took pictures and left.”
Pellerin was among several people who testified to the committee in support of a $40 million appropriation that would be used to prepare fire departments nationwide for oil fires like Lac-Megantic. Those who testified said that while some significant railroad safety gains have occurred, most fire departments could not handle another Lac-Megantic if it occurred today.
“No community is prepared for a worst-case event,” National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman testified.
At Lac-Megantic, U.S. and Canadian firefighters lacked compatible radios and equipment, French-English translators or a large-scale hazardous materials plan, Pellerin said. So they improvised, establishing a four-link communications chain to overcome their radio and translation difficulties.
Over the 30 hours Pellerin spent at Lac-Megantic, firefighters pumped a million gallons of water from Megantic Lake and went to Toronto, about seven hours distant, to find 8,000 gallons of firefighting foam, enough to douse the burning oil, he said.
Pellerin urged the committee to legislate the mandatory formation of hazmat plans specifically geared to fighting petroleum fires caused by derailments. Oil shipments have risen 400 percent since 2005 as the U.S. has become the world’s largest energy producer, the speakers said, but oil producers’ and shippers’ safety planning has lagged far behind.
He recommended Internet-based common training programs that firefighters could use.
Oil shippers and producers have made some significant strides in safeguarding the oil they ship. They have improved coordination and communication of shipping information and safety protocols. They have reduced train speeds and identified oil shipping routes to emergency responders, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said.
In a development separate from the hearing, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration announced Wednesday that it will propose requiring two-person train crews on crude oil trains and establishing minimum crew size standards for most main line freight and passenger rail operations. U.S. Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree, both D-Maine, applauded the initiative, which mirrored legislation they had proposed.
“Rail transportation is critical to our economy, but trains often carry hazardous materials through our communities — so we must ensure they are operating as safely as possible,” Michaud said in a prepared statement. “This rule will be an important step toward preventing another tragedy like the one in Lac-Megantic.”
“Having two crew on a train carrying tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil is really the least we can do to improve safety,” Pingree said. “This is a commonsense rule that is long overdue.”
Three FRA working groups, created last year at DOT’s request in response to Lac-Megantic, are working on a variety of train safety improvements, Foxx said.
Foxx testified that federal officials are working “as fast as possible” to develop specs calling for the phase-out or upgrade of the DOT-111 tanker that is commonly used to ship crude oil — an answer U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, found frustrating.
The National Transportation Safety Board has warned of the tanker cars’ safety flaws for decades, she said. Canadian authorities already have announced plans to phase out 183 older tanker cars over the next four years.
Collins said that the producers and shippers needed to speed testing of the crude oil they handle to determine its flammability. Emergency responders cannot craft effective plans until they know exactly how hazardous the oil is, she said.
Most of the oil in Lac-Megantic and nearly a dozen oil-train derailments in the U.S. and Canada since then has been found to be more explosive than generally realized, but only three oil producers in the midwest oil fields producing the light crude oil shipped through Maine into Canada have cooperated with federal testing and data collection efforts, Foxx said.
“It needs to be the rail shippers who provide that information and they need to be held responsible,” Pellerin said.
Pellerin said he receives one report annually from all the companies shipping hazardous materials through Rangeley, creating hundreds of reports that need to be sifted to help determine appropriate responses to emergencies.
“I can honestly say that I didn’t go to my office and” find the report MMA filed on its oil shipments before heading into Canada, Pellerin said. “It doesn’t work that way.”
Collins, who invited Pellerin to speak before the committee, said the multi-pronged approach federal officials were taking to safeguard oil shipments was appropriate. There is no one answer to improving rail safety, she said.
“The path forward is a complex one but it is absolutely essential that we pursue it,” Collins said.