Exploding oil trains: Coming to a Vancouver neighbourhood near you?

Oil train explodes after crashing into a derailed grain train just west of Casselton, N.D. | photo from www.thetimes.co.uk

The Vancouver Sun published in its Jan. 2 edition a rare look at oil train movement in the Lower Mainland by its excellent writer on the natural resources industries, Gordon Hoekstra.

The total volume of oil train movement in the region is unknown. That information is kept under wraps by the rail industry and the federal government. Hoekstra reports that the Chevron refinery in Burnaby is receiving up to 14 train wagon loads of oil per day via CP Rail.

CN Rail unloads oil wagons in Langley and the oil is then trucked to Chevron. The company also transfers oil wagons to Burlington Northern/Santa Fe (BNSF) in New Westminster for transport into the U.S.

The Sun article was prompted by the Dec. 30 derailment, explosion and fire of an oil train just outside of Casselton, North Dakota. The train was being hauled by BNSF. It contained 104 oil wagons. According to BNSF, about 20 of those caught fire. This was the fourth major derailment and fire of a North Dakota oil train in the past six months. The first of those was the July 6 derailment disaster in Lac Mégantic, Quebec that killed 47 people and destroyed the center of the town. The other two occurred in Alabama and west of Edmonton, Alberta.

Casselton is a town of 2,500 people in the southeast of North Dakota. Mayor Ed McConnell says his town “dodged a bullet”. If the derailment had taken place in the town, it would have been another Lac Mégantic. As it was, no one was injured or killed.

McConnell told the Associated Press, "There have been numerous derailments in this area. It's almost gotten to the point that it looks like not if we're going to have an accident [ie that kills people], it's when".

He wants something done about the apparent free-for-all with oil train movement that is taking place in North America.

As the Globe and Mail and its lead reporter on the subject, Grant Robertson, revealed last year, the shale oil in North Dakota that is brought to the surface by the highly destructive practice of fracking is highly combustible and much more dangerous to transport than conventional crude oil. The Globe and Mail writers headlined a Dec. 3 story summarizing their findings, ‘The deadly secret behind the Lac Mégantic inferno’.

Oil companies and the railways have known about the dangers of North Dakota oil but have done little or nothing to take preventive measures. That includes Irving Oil of Saint John, New Brunswick. It was a 73-wagon oil train bound for Irving’s refinery in Saint John (Canada’s largest refinery) that derailed and exploded in Lac Mégantic. The citizens of the town never knew of the exceptional danger to which they were being exposed by an oil-by-rail scheme from North Dakota launched in 2012 by Irving and its railway partners, including CP Rail.

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