In what is shaping up to be a year of oil disaster after oil disaster, a train carrying crude and petroleum derailed and caused explosions near the Canadian village of Gainford, Alberta. While no one was injured, it forced the entire community to evacuate, and firefighters have decided they must let the resulting blaze burn itself out.
On October 19, the train, which belongs to Canadian National Railway, was en route from Edmonton to Vancouver when 13 of its cars derailed. The reason for the derailment has not yet been ascertained. The cars that carried petroleum were responsible for the explosion, while those that carried oil reportedly did not burst, meaning there is no known oil leakage. That is but the faintest silver lining in the otherwise black ash cloud that now writhes around the crash site.
"This fire needs to be extinguished by consuming the product," said county fire chief Jim Phelan. "We're going to let it burn itself out." And at least 100 Gainford residents, he added, will not be able to come back until that happens.
This is the second disaster of its kind in Canada this year, following the June 6 train derailment in Quebec, which caused massive explosions, killed 47 people, and spewed oil all over the town of Lac-Mégantic. And during that same month, another spill occurred outside of Zama City, Alberta when a toxic combination of oil, water, and other chemicals leaked from a pipeline. It has turned out to be a terrible year, in terms of oil disasters, for North America on the whole. But environmentalists note an uptick in train derailments in particular.
Keith Stewart, climate and energy campaign coordinator for Greenpeace, said that the derailment of trains carrying oil and other chemicals "will become the new normal," unless the Canadian government is willing to implement "serious new safety measures for oil by rail. Three years ago, there was almost no oil being moved by rail. It's been growing incredibly rapidly and it's projected to keep growing that way, and the safety standards in Canada simply have not kept up to the new ways to move new kinds of oil.
"I think what's happening is we're putting more and more oil into an infrastructure that is aging and wasn't really designed for it in the first place, and that's increasing the risk."
Ben West, a campaigner with environmental group Forest Ethics, suggested that the decision of government and Big Oil to move away from pipelines and start transporting crude via train has been marketed as a safer practice, but is, in actuality, just as dangerous. "To try and get around the pipeline process by pushing more rail through, especially with the implications of it, seems highly irresponsible to me."
Kate Collarulli of the Sierra Club agreed, saying that pipeline vs. rail arguments were pointless. "To say that we have to choose between rail or pipelines is cynical and defeatist," she said. "Oil is a dangerous fuel no matter how it is transported."
West went on to criticize the continued usage of outdated rail cars on such trains, noting, "We really should be looking at what kinds of train cars are being used. Some of these old ones seem really problematic."
Brett VandenHeuval of environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper said, "We've seen over and over that these train derailments are not a matter of if but when. And when a train derails while it is carrying hazardous cargo, it's a threat to our public safety, our economy, and our environment."