At about 1:15 Saturday morning, a 72-freightcar train carrying crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale development, bound for Irving Oil’s plant in Saint John, New Brunswick, slipped its brakes in the eastern Quebec town of Nantes. The train’s only human passenger — the engineer — had checked into a nearby hotel. Driverless and continually accelerating on a downhill track, the long black tanker-only train derailed seven miles away, near the Maine border.
At least five of the tank cars blew up. Black smoke, high flames, and huge fireballs touched the sky. Detonations continued for several hours. The explosions and fire killed about 1% of the entire population of Lac-Mégantic.
With 6,000 residents, a third of them are evacuees until today, the town had had lively agriculture, logging, lumber, and pulp and paper industries, as well as a growing number of tourists who came to hunt and fish. The explosions, blaze, and resulting oil spills radically changed the character of Lac-Mégantic overnight.
Environmental context of the Canadian incident
Liquid petroleum hydrocarbon releases like this are part of the anthropogenic causes of our deteriorating ecological balance. Although oil spills on land and into the freshwater environment are more frequent and often more environmentally damaging, the public knows less about them than the massive offshore disasters like the wreck of the Exxon Valdez and contamination of the Gulf of Mexico by BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform.
Quality of human and wild life
The environmental damage from the Lac-Mégantic fire and spill is very difficult to estimate so far because the cleanup, which could take weeks or months, is only in its beginning stages. However, we do know the basics about the accident: people killed and injured, infrasructure destroyed, approximate volume of oil spilled.
As well as directly impacting people and animals through physical contact, spilled oil sends toxicity right up the entire freshwater food chain. Tainted microorganisms, invertebrates, and algae move toxins into insects, vegetation, fish, aquatic birds, and mammals. Food sources, breeding and nesting areas, and migration routes can also be destroyed by oil spills.
The explosion damaged a water main, forcing emergency measures in the area. More importantly, though, about 100,000 liters of oil spilled from the damaged freight cars in Lac-Mégantic into the nearby Chaudière River and Lac Megantic, say officials of the province of Quebec.
Many villages and towns nearby get their drinkable water from the Chaudiere. While the oil spill in the river has been contained, it has not been removed, and officials have cautioned residents to boil domestic water. Drinking water conservation measures are also in effect.
Standing lake or pond water (the contents of Mégantic Lake) with little movement receives more severe impacts than flowing water (the Chaudière River) because spilled oil tends to remain in basins for longer periods of time, while flowing water (currents) have a natural flushing effect.
However, river water pollution can extend for dozens or hundreds of mles away from its source. The oil from this spill appears to have flowed downstream as far as Saint-Georges, a city of 31,000 roughly 50 miles away.
The hot smoke and airborne chemicals produced by the fire likely harmed the passages of the nose, airways, and lungs of resident people and animals, as well as causing thermal damage, pulmonary irritation and swelling, poisoning, and/or asphyxiation to those most closely affected.
Because much of the air emissions came from burning crude oil, they likely contained lead, sulfur dioxide, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons as well.
Those in areas other than the immediate vicinity were also affected by the smoke. For two days, winds blew this toxic mixture of gases and soot from the fires over the state of Maine and as far east as southern Nova Scotia.
Other environmental effects
As well as polluting air and water, threatening public safety, and destroying ecosystems, oil spills waste precious petroleum resources that cannot be replaced or renewed. They also contribute to atmospheric greenhouse gas pollution and thus hasten global climate change.
The accident has also renewed the debate over truck vs. rail vs. pipeline delivery of oil. It is already figuring into the controversy over the massive proposed Keystone XL pipeline. One conclusion, from Andrew Leach, an energy and environmental economist at the Alberta School of Business at the University of Alberta, is that “this tragedy will have an industry-wide, negative impact…. I doubt there are many people in the oil sands industry today who feel that they are better off as a result of the BP spill, and I expect that the pipeline industry will come to feel the same way about Lac-Mégantic in short order.”