Photo: Lessons to be learned from the Lac-Mégantic tragedy

On July 6, the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, was shattered by one of Canada's worst industrial and rail disasters. (Credit: EstriePlusJournal)

By Peter Robinson

On July 6, the town of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, was shattered by one of Canada's worst industrial and rail disasters, when a train carrying crude oil derailed and cars exploded, killing at least 15 people, with close to 40 others not yet accounted for, and spilling oil into the Chaudière River. Our thoughts at the David Suzuki Foundation are with the people of Lac-Mégantic as they grapple with this terrible tragedy. We are just starting to come to terms with the implications of the devastation for the town and for the wider political discussion now taking place.

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Because the train was carrying crude oil, the incident has been woven into highly charged debate on fossil fuels, exports and infrastructure. People need time to recover and grieve, and we also need to understand how it happened so we can prevent such an incident from occurring again. But, inevitably, the conversation is turning to the broader context of oil, energy, pipelines and politics.

We must remember that this was a derailment, and while the scale of the disaster was amplified because of the contents of the train cars and the circumstances of the derailment, trains go off the rails from time to time, and crude oil is only one of many potentially dangerous cargoes that pass through populated areas. An immediate priority will be to figure out how the system failed and why trains with such dangerous payloads are moving through towns and cities.

We also need to determine what role federal, provincial and municipal governments play in prioritizing safety. Had unsafe practices been allowed to persist under inadequate regulatory oversight? Should rail cars carrying dangerous materials be built to better standards? People in communities across Canada have the right to feel assured that regulatory agencies are acting in their best interests and are working to improve oversight, planning and practices to minimize risk.

As for the broader context, many people have argued this disaster shows the need for pipeline expansion. It's true that rail shipment of oil has increased dramatically in Canada, from 500 carloads in 2009 to 14,000 this year, according to Railway Association of Canada. But this is the wrong starting point for discussion. This disaster shows that transporting oil is dangerous by any means.

With a growing demand for fossil fuels, and increasing efforts to exploit and sell it as quickly as possible, we are now extracting oil from more difficult sources and transporting it over greater distances to a broader network. From environmentally devastating pipeline spills to horrendous tragedies like that in Lac-Mégantic, not to mention climate change, the likelihood of fossil fuel damage will continue to increase if we don't curb our voracious appetite to consume and facilitate the supply of that oil. There is really only one certain way to reduce the risk of oil transportation, and that's to produce and consume less of it.

At the David Suzuki Foundation, we believe we can build healthier communities that are less dependent on oil and powered by cleaner and safer sources of energy that also help safeguard our climate. We know it will be a major challenge to achieve this dramatic transition (e.g., cutting oil consumption by more than half within 20 years), but our research shows it's possible and that it would deliver many other benefits. Instead of debating whether we want oil trains or pipelines running through our backyard, we should be debating how to wind down the oil industry and commercialize and deploy Canada's vast clean energy potential. We believe that Canada has the skills, resources and knowhow to make this brighter future a reality.

July 9, 2013

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Jul 19, 2013
12:17 PM

To avoid a tragedy like what happened in Lac-Mégantic, freight trains carrying dangerous goods should NOT be left unattended on the track or they should be properly secured.

Jul 17, 2013
6:29 PM

It seems David Suzuki is getting soft. Instead of asking the government to assure the people of Canada the safe transport of fuel across the country why not ask them to invest in clean, renewable energies which are less harmful to the environment.

Jul 15, 2013
9:41 AM

John —

Why is it short-sighted to say that if we increase our use of fossil fuels, then we transport them more and it increases the risk of accidents. I don't want people to die as 'just part of the process' so that I can get around. A trainload of crude is a moving potential bomb. Can we trust the rail companies to move it safely? Is it possible for terrorists to exploit the transport of crude? And on and on ... This tragedy in the short-term should mean automatic fail-safes to protect from runaway trains at the minimum. In the long-term, we do have to reduce fossil fuel use, if only to reduce pollution. We have to get away from the mentality that it is ok to spew fumes or liquids into the environment that are toxic... whether it is fuels or pesticides or fertilizers ...

Jul 11, 2013
12:20 PM

Very shortsighted article. To begin our sympathies must go out to those affected by this disaster. But to use this as an argument against pipelines is completely ignorant. It is a known fact that oil transported by pipeline is 4 times safer then rail transport. You blow smoke talking about reducing our use of oil in the next 20 years but with no concrete ideas how to reach this goal.
When is the last time an oil spill from a pipeline took a human life? Take an inward look at yourselves and your constant opposition to pipelines knowing what the alternative is and will continue to be.
You no longer have my support.

Jul 11, 2013
9:36 AM

@Will: I don't think environmentalists are under any illusions that we can replace what oil delivers in terms of the type of economy we have today with any available alternative. It's pretty clear that our lifestyle needs to change, and with that would come changes to the makeup of our economic outputs (ie the things we produce for trade and consumption.) as well as the methods and location of production.

It's likely that more job opportunities rather than fewer job opportunities would emerge in such a scenario were competition from oil powered machinery is reduced or eliminated.

A lot of the need for the transportation you speak of results from an over dependence on goods produced non locally.
What's wrong with local cooperatives running their own industries anyway? Why not let a community decide it's own wants and needs and the pace at which decisions are made?

I learned long ago that happiness does not come out of a cardboard box from a far away land. The thing that makes me happiest is a healthy environment which has been disappearing because too many of us are unwilling to imagine that there are alternative ways of organizing ourselves in a way that can preserve it.

Lastly, oil will not be available forever. If we think oil will always be there to keep things going as they have been, then we are in a state of deep denial. It makes sense to begin moving in a direction that leaves a healthy environment to nourish and sustain us in the future.

Jul 11, 2013
5:30 AM

Not withstanding the inconsiderate timing of this article and the fact that it could've been a criminal act, I will post a response. First we have to consider that we all use oil and gas so be aware that oil companies are just responding to the demand that WE create.

Secondly, we should consider that many environmentalists have protested pipelines which would reduce the need for train transport of oil. Also there's a lot of talk here but no actually results of something that can replace oil and gas today. That is why as a former green supporter, things have gone off the rails so to speak where you and others such as Liberals and NDP no longer promote multi-faceted and practical energy development anymore. Now you're against pipelines, natural gas development, oil drilling and in my town even wind energy as they want local co-ops instead of larger companies to develop wind.

Thirdly, there are no viable alternatives today that could instantly replace the need to power our large transport trucks, planes, cars not to mention all the products made from oil. So let's get out of our fantasy world, idealistic views and ivory towers and start to discuss a viable way forward. And I didn't even mention the badly needed jobs and revenues especially here in the Maritimes.

Jul 10, 2013
3:26 PM

> not to mention climate change

Yes, surprisingly, you found a way to mention it.

Jul 10, 2013
3:16 PM

@Robert R Ward
The primary focus of Hydrogen fuel technology is energy storage and transportation, not energy production. With any storage and transportation solution, you still need to answer the question: where does the energy come from?


Jul 10, 2013
9:17 AM

Ahhh the onward march of AGENDA 21 .

Jul 10, 2013
8:36 AM

In the short term, improved regulation of the means of moving oil around should be in order.
Yesterday I watched an interview with the ceo of the company that operates the train involved. He made it clear that the lack of enforceable regulation applying to all carriers makes it impossible for one company to choose to spend additional money on safety measures, because this would give advantage to competitors who would gladly see that company fail because of it's decision. That is capitalist reality described by an active practitioner.
Clearly deregulation and minimization of public oversight needs re thinking. There are costs involved in the safe transport of hazardous goods and we must all bear this cost when we choose to buy them.

Jul 09, 2013
7:14 PM

In lieu of gasoline, diesel, diluent etc. Why have we not developed HHO hydrogen fuel. Eco-friendly and clean. ???

Jul 09, 2013
5:12 PM

The big question is not about what form of transport is the safest way to get oil from point A to point B... but the of the equipment and infrastructure used in the transport. MMAR (Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway) has had a reputation of doing business on the cheap. Records show that since 2003 they have had over 100 accidents (derailments and collisions) and were close to being shut down a few years ago.

As for safety being a concern when trains pass through cities or towns we have to understand one thing. The railways were, for the most part, there before the cities. The towns grew around them and now expect them to not cut through their towns.

Please do not get me wrong... what happened was HORRIBLE and someone has to be held accountable for this disaster. The people of Lac-Megantic should all be in our thoughts right now and throughout the rebuilding process. This tragedy should serve as a wake up call that safety has to be first and foremost when it comes to transporting ANYTHING by any means.

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