Lessons learned from Lac-Megantic

10 years ago

In the early morning hours of Saturday, July 6, 2013, a freight train carrying more than a million gallons of crude oil was sent hurtling toward Lac-Megantic, a small, picturesque Canadian village located only 30 miles from the Maine border. The train derailed in the center of town, leveling several blocks and killing 47 residents. This was an unthinkable loss that touched every member of that close-knit community and so many people in our state.
Within hours of this horrific derailment, the Franklin County Emergency Management Agency had alerted several area fire departments, and more than 30 Maine firefighters responded from Chesterville, Eustis, Farmington, New Vineyard, Phillips, Strong and Rangeley. One of them was Rangeley’s Fire Chief Tim Pellerin. At my request, Chief Pellerin recently testified at a hearing on rail safety before the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee on which I serve as ranking member.
The horrific derailment in Lac-Megantic brought to light the importance of ensuring the safe transportation of energy products and the challenges that our nation’s firefighters and first responders face when responding to incidents involving hazardous materials. At our hearing, Chief Pellerin offered a unique, first-hand account of his experiences in Lac-Megantic.
While this tragedy hit so very close to home for us Mainers, there have been several other derailments of crude oil and other hazardous material recently across the country. Despite these incidents, the railroad industry maintains it has upheld a high safety record, and according to the Association of American Railroads, more than 99 percent of rail hazmat shipments reached their destination without a release of product. That is, however, small comfort to those affected by the Lac-Megantic disaster.
Since the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board has been working with the Transportation Safety Board of Canada and has made several recommendations to improve safety. Addressing the challenges of crude oil transportation, however, is a complicated, multi-faceted problem that will require coordination among several agencies. We must look at three components in addressing this important safety issue: prevention, mitigation, and response. This includes everything from preventing derailments by fixing railroad track, minimizing leakage by strengthening tank cars, and ensuring emergency responders and firefighters are properly trained and equipped.
Yet it should not stop there. The Department of Transportation must work with all railroads, Class One and short-line alike, the oil and gas industry, as well as state and local community emergency responders to determine a holistic approach to improve safety.
It is also important to recognize that much of the rail network exists in rural America. This presents unique challenges to small towns that often lack resources to effectively respond to hazardous material emergencies. In fact, as Chief Pellerin testified, every fire department in the nation trains to be prepared to respond to common emergencies, but the disaster in Lac-Megantic highlights how critical it is that departments be ready to respond to an event of this magnitude. He urged for integrated, large-scale hazardous materials disaster training, such as a web-based program that can reach as many first responders and their mutual aid partners as possible.
We all are truly grateful for valiant and selfless efforts of our nation’s firefighters, such as those from Maine who responded to Lac-Megantic. We must continue to do all we can to prevent future disasters and work to ensure that our first responders are prepared to do their best protecting us when disaster does strike.