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Winter 2014

The Lac Megantic Explosion
How a Canadian Disaster Could Change the Bakken

A Unit Train Loaded with Bakken Crude Explodes.
The Blast is equivalent to 900 Tons of TNT.
1,500,000 Gallons either Spill or Burn.
58 Tank Cars go up in Flames.
40 Buildings Incinerated.

47 People Perish

If it had happened in the United States, it would have gained similar headline status that the Boston Marathon bombing or the Denver movie theater shootings had.  If it had happened in the United States, it is nearly guaranteed that transporting fracked oil by rail would be the new target of those who still call for making the possession of a firearm illegal.  If it had happened in the United States, the Bakken wouldn’t just be flooded with workers… it would have been flooded with reporters.

Many in our region may find it hard to believe, but most Americans are still fairly unaware of the Bakken oil boom. North Dakota is still flying under the radar.  Ask the average American about oil and they’ll certainly mention Texas or the Middle East.  But despite the Bakken’s historic role in America’s energy resurgence, you’d be hard pressed to find 10% of the nation who wouldn’t respond to a question about it with – “What’s a Bakken?”

That may very well change. 

By the end of August 2013, Operation “Bakken Blitz” was launched by Federal regulators aimed at looking into “inconsistencies with crude oil classification” of Bakken rail cars.  Though these surprise inspections had been long planned, the headlines in the Canadian press about the Lac-Megantic Canadian rail disaster which included “Deadly Fracked Bakken Oil” and “Abnormal ‘strength of the fire’ puzzles investigators” seemed to turn the inspection into an investigation.

If the findings confirm that Bakken crude is indeed more flammable and volatile, the rules for shipping it will change.  With these changes will come a nearly instant drop in rail shipments until new tank cars are built to add to the existing yet inadequate supply of safer tank cars.  The implication is that the Bakken may have to dramatically slow its pace to avoid an overproduction problem.

This is an energy magazine.  The focus and concern is how the industry impacts our region.  But to best understand how the Lac Megantic event could affect the Bakken, it is vitally important to understand how the Bakken may have affected the small lakeside city of Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

Loaded in New Town, North Dakota, the unit train (a train carrying only one type of product) hauling Bakken crude stretched just 500 feet short of a mile long.  Five diesel locomotives set off in early July 2013 with 72 crude loaded tankers, one buffer car which rode between the engines and tankers, and one remote control car  with a final destination of the Irving Oil Refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada.  The exact date of departure and exact route taken is information not readily available – and rightfully so:  Protecting these shipments from attack (either born of domestic or international threat) is vital, especially since this 2,300 mile route is being run on a fairly regular basis.

The specifics of date and time once the train reached Nantes in Quebec Province, Canada, however, have become a matter of historical record… as has the infamous chapter of the worst Canadian rail disaster in nearly 57 years.

Coming to a stop at 11:00 pm on Friday, July 5th in Nantes, Quebec, the train was in the subcontracted care of the United States based Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway – typically referred to as MM&A.  Designated “MMA 2”, much like a flight number for an airline flight, the train, which was allowed “SPTO” status (Single Person Train Operation) by both Canadian and U.S. regulations was parked on the main line in the small Canadian town at the end of the sole engineer’s shift.  Following company procedure, he set the air brakes of the lead engine and applied a number of manual hand brakes on the locomotives and some of the tank cars.  How many is a number in question.  The company initially claimed 15.  Investigators believe only 5 were set.  But even if none of the manual handbrakes were set, it really didn’t matter much.  The lead diesel locomotive, #5017, was left running to keep the air brakes on and pressurized – standard procedure.  That breaking system alone was enough to keep the idle train in place.  And besides, the train was sitting on a barely perceptible decline – a grade of 1.2%.  The 10,000 ton load sat like a rock on the rail.

But there was a problem.  The lead locomotive was showing signs of distress as it pulled into Nantes that night. As it sat parked, blue plumes of smoke and occasional sparks were choking from the engine.  The engineer was well aware that the lead engine – left running -  was suffering, but he felt there was little he could do in the remote location. According to the taxi driver, whom drove the engineer to his hotel room for the night (as he had done so many times before for the same engineer on previous runs), the engineer had expressed a nervous concern in leaving the locomotive running with it still spitting oil and thick smoke.  But policy mandated the train remain running.  The pressure in the air brakes had to be maintained.  He further commented to the taxi driver that he wanted to get to a phone at his hotel in Lac Megantic, only 8 miles away, and call the company office in Maine for instructions. 

By 11:45 pm, the lead engine looked to be on fire by local residents who called 911.  Within five minutes, firefighters and police arrived on scene to see sparks and a dark blue cloud of smoke rolling from the locomotive’s engine.  A broken piston in the diesel engine had indeed finally started a “good sized blaze” in the motor according to the Nantes Fire Chief.

Prior to attacking the blaze, the twelve man fire fighting crew shut down the engine of the lead diesel locomotive, #5017.  “Our protocol calls for us to shut down an engine because it is the only way to stop the fuel from circulating into the fire,” the Nantes Fire Chief later explained.  To do so, they had to gain access to the locomotive’s control room.  But that would not require a typically heavy shouldered axe in hand action.  It was unlocked.  Apparently, MM&A had no policy in place for locking the door of an unmanned locomotive, even when parked along side a well travelled highway. 

After dousing the fire, the Nantes Fire Department contacted the rail traffic controller for the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway in Farnham, Quebec, 125 miles away.  He dispatched two rail maintenance workers from MM&A to the scene. They arrived at 12:13am.  What they did after meeting with the fire department is unclear.  Shortly after their arrival, Nantes firefighters left the scene. 

With the lead locomotive still powered down, the compressor powering the air brakes was no longer keeping the pressure up on the brakes.  Though a culmination of factors and events would lead to a catastrophic scene just under an hour later, it was the approaching moment, the moment at which the pressure finally dropped to the point at which the air brakes released, that the train began to creak forward.  Why the hand breaks did not hold is a matter of speculation – were there 15 applied as the company initially said, or only 5 as investigators speculated?  It did not matter at this point.  The train was a ghost.  Driverless and dark, it ever so slowly edged forward at approximately 12:56 am on July 6th.

A Nantes resident who lives next to the railyard was sitting outside by a campfire when he first heard the fire trucks arrive that Friday night. “About five minutes after the firemen left, I felt the vibration of a train moving down the track. I then saw the train move by without its lights on,” he told a reporter.  “I found it strange its lights weren’t on and thought it was an electrical problem on board.”

On the perfect Canadian summer night, the initial sight of the ghost train had to be haunting.  Very slowly picking up pace on a barely perceptible 1.2% grade – lights out, engine quiet.  The only sounds would have been the wheels of the heavy locomotives and tank cars inching forward far more slowly than if being pulled by the strength of five engines.  Instead, kinetic energy - gravity - drove the train as it drifted down the gradually descending grade from Nantes towards Lac-Megantic, eight miles away.

Lac-Megantic is by all descriptions a sleepy little town named for the lake along which it sits.  The word, Megantic, meaning “where the fish gather” is from the native American tribe the Abenaki, and “Lac” is simply French for “Lake.”  The “lake where the fish gather” was also a place where members of a tightly knit community of 6,000 residents would gather for weekend drinks and live, easy going music at a favorite night spot.

At the same time the ghost train was beginning to pick up speed, patrons of a small but trendy bar in downtown Lac-Megantic were enjoying the music of a folk duo band.  Called “a place of happiness” by the owner, the Musi-Café was a laid back hangout.  One patron said he often saw people ages “18 to 78” sitting at its tables. Three different groups of patrons – one group of 15, one of 8, and one of 4 were celebrating friends’ birthdays.  At about 1:10 am, two patrons walked separately through the crowded club, moving outside to the ground level terrace to have a cigarette.  There, a couple on a first date were sharing drinks.  A small handful of people were enjoying the mild night air.

Seven minutes after first creeping forward, the dark ghost train, “MMA 2”, had slowly picked up a steady pace and was travelling close to 60mph as it came in sight of the lights of downtown Lac-Megantic.  It had travelled a little over 7 miles from Nantes in 17 minutes.  It would reach the main city intersection downtown where the track made a heavy curve through businesses and homes - just 30 yards from the Musi-Café - in barely more than 60 seconds.  It was already travelling six times the allowed 10mph speed posted for the curve.

At about 1:12 am, the bar goers who had taken a break from the interior were on the brick paved terrace smoking their cigarettes. One of them was part of the duo that had been playing for three hours.  There, the couple on their first date were sharing drinks with the girl’s friend who was her “just in case” escape route in case things didn’t go well.  Though the couple were hitting it off, when the girl’s “chaperone” insisted on going back inside the bar, she urged her to stay.  But she was eager to give them their space and declined as she disappeared into the mix of people in the bar.

Racing into the city, the lights out train sped toward downtown.  A resident was filling her car with gas on her way back from work when the runaway train flew past on the nearby tracks just seconds away from the sharp curve at the downtown intersection.  She immediately felt that something was wrong.

A waitress who was off for the night was asked to check in at the bar to see if they might need help.  She admitted having thought, “If there is parking available, I’ll stop, if not, I’ll keep driving.”  But with a full house at the bar, parking was at a premium.  She circled, drove by the terrace, and waved to a few people she knew before driving on.

As the musician lit another cigarette, he heard then felt the hard rumbling of the ground.  For the briefest of moments, he was certain it was an earthquake.  A second later, the train appeared, ripping around the bend near the buildings on the opposite side of the street.  Five huge locomotives cut through the intersection, heavily navigating the curve as quickly as the train had appeared, moving in excess of 60mph.  The following tank cars, loaded with Bakken crude, just as quickly began to heave sideways off the rails.  Their heavy load was simply not heavy enough to keep them upright.  People on the terrace froze at the sight.

The first explosion nearly instantly followed.  It was 1:14 in the morning.

On the terrace, bar-goers at first were awestruck.  The smoking musician said, “A big mushroom cloud went up – I couldn’t believe it.” But as the heat quickly began to surge forward, they bolted in all directions away from the flames.  Inside, the bar went black, then was flooded with reflective bright red and orange light, “brighter than the middle of the day, a blinding, lively orange,” a patron inside said. As the crash played out, the still connected tank cars began to derail in an accordion like fashion as the wreckage quickly piled up three stories high right at the intersection.

According to witness accounts as reported by the Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper.  “…the wave of flames washed over the Musi-Café.”  Of the estimated 60 occupants, “some tried to leave from the front and couldn’t, others tried to exit by the back and that was a sea of flames.”  Just moments after waving goodbye to friends on the terrace, the waitress saw a ball of flames in her rearview mirror.

As patrons from the terrace area ran, “a wave of fire as wide as the street” was coming toward them. “Asphalt doesn’t burn,” the musician said. “When I saw the fire coming down the street I knew it was oil. I just started running, racing south.

Only 15 seconds had gone by since the first blast.

One of my employees was calling,” the owner told the Globe and Mail.She was screaming, telling me that she was running away, that everything was on fire, it was chaos, the restaurant was gone, everything was gone, and people were still inside.

In a video taped interview, one of the other men who went out for a smoke later said, “I’m the friend who always burns cigarettes.  That’s what saved me.  Most of the people I met in the bar while walking to the terrace died.

At his hotel in Lac-Megantic, the engineer was raised from sleep by the blast.  According to Canada’s National Post newspaper, the receptionist saw him quickly enter the lobby.  “I looked at him and I didn’t say a word because he looked very, very, very, shaken up.”  Before he arrived at the scene it seems, he knew exactly what was happening.  The rest of the town was waking up to the developing inferno. 

Over the next several minutes, an estimated 1.5 million gallons of Bakken crude rolled in fiery waves down hill across three city blocks toward Lake Megantic.  Dozens of businesses and homes were in its path.  Basements and sewer lines filled with fire.  In some cases, man hole covers were blown into the air.  Flames reached heights of hundreds of feet as four more explosions were heard not long after the initial blast.  Most residents in their homes, asleep at the time, were able to escape the approaching inferno.  Some did not. The first reported death was of a 93 year old woman who had not escaped from her home which was near the blast. A 19 year old who lived in an apartment near the Musi-Café lost his life in his home.  When rail cars hit the home where a mother and her two young daughters lived, age 3 and 9, they were trapped in the building. Several other residents who lived in the downtown district had not escaped either. 

All of these events unfolded within minutes of the 1:14 derailment.  Emergency responders were quick to the scene. Shortly after leaving the hotel, the shaken engineer assisted in pulling eight tank cars at the rear of the train that remained intact and on the rail away from the blaze.  In the hour that followed, local firefighters and citizens began frantically attempting to contain the blaze with little initial luck.  Some citizens performed acts of heroism.  A contractor used his front end loader to smash buildings in an effort to block the path of the fire. Eventually, firefighters from several cities including Farmington, Maine and Montreal responded to calls for assistance.

The surreal scene of a raging inferno casting clouds of black smoke into the dark night was saturated with the smell of burning oil and asphalt.  The fiery and charred panorama was cast behind shimmering heat in waves that carried the intense temperatures.  All night, loud sounds of ghost like, boiling kettle-whistle blows, which were believed to have come from rail tankers as they cracked from the intense heat, amplified the eerie atmosphere.  From the time first responders arrived on the scene until after daybreak, the fire burned out of control.  From the bar and downhill toward the lake, 40 buildings were literally reduced to their foundations by the fasting moving fire.

As the sun rose on that Saturday morning, the parallels drawn to scenes of war were appropriately placed by those bearing witness to the destruction.  The photographic images may reveal the devastation, but they can hardly capture the reality of what had happened, and what was still unfolding. By 9am, the Canadian public was fully aware that something terrible had happened in the small town of 6,000, but initial reports didn’t include casualties.  All that was said was that an estimated 60 people were reported missing.  At 1pm, in addition to the 1,000 residents whom were evacuated that night, an additional 1,000 residents were told to leave.  The first reported casualty didn’t come until 3:30 pm.  The efforts of a combined force of local and regional firefighters had successfully contained the blaze only an hour and a half earlier, keeping it from spreading beyond the downtown area.  The fire burned until Sunday morning. 

The official confirmed death toll was not reported until two full weeks later - July 19th - as the recovery and identification process of those who lost their lives was, difficult.  Of the 47 Lac-Megantic residents who died that night, many were in the Musi-Café which had been quickly obliterated. Literally, nothing was left of the building.  Even the foundation was imperceptible.  People aged 18 to 50 who had shared a night of music had shared their last moments together. 

In the article that follows, Energy Ink lays out the clear causes of the disaster… But what about the contents of the cargo?  Should the Bakken crude which served as the fuel of the explosions and fire be considered as one of the causes of this disaster?  That is at the heart of a debate which is still to picking up steam months later, especially after a more recent derailment in a remote part of Alabama in which Bakken crude was involved. 

Regardless of the conclusion, the reason for the dramatic description of the Lac-Megantic disaster in this article is this, as stated at the outset: This is an energy magazine… all things energy.  The focus and concern is how events affect our region.  To best understand how the Lac Megantic event could affect the Bakken, it is vitally important to understand how the Bakken may have affected the small lakeside city of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. 

The good people working the oil fields of North Dakota were not responsible for this disaster.  But it should be understood by everyone in our region just how catastrophic this event was to a small community, though 2,300 miles away, considering the connection we all have to it, even if that connection is to be considered slight. 

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By Eric Sharpe, Editor, Energy Ink Magazine. January 1st, 2014.


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