“When you see the center of your town almost destroyed, you’ll understand that we’re asking ourselves how we are going to get through this event.” — Lac-Megantic Mayor Colette Roy-Laroche
Early Saturday morning a train carrying crude oil that was supposed to be stopped for the night rolled downhill toward the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec — less than 10 miles from the U.S. border near Eustis, Maine. It then derailed and caused several powerful explosions and set fires that were still burning on Sunday.
The explosions destroyed the town’s center and killed at least one person, though police are having a difficult time reconciling missing persons reports and expect the death toll to increase. Lac-Megantic’s town center has bars and restaurants that become popular in the summertime, but these places of nighttime revelry turned into disaster zones as explosions caused intense heat, flames, and large plumes of black smoke. The town’s fire chief described the scene as a war zone.
The train’s operator said the cause was still unclear, because the engineer parked the train uphill from the town after the day’s run and a parked train should not become a runaway train. The 73 cars were supposed to be stopped for the night, and each of the 30,000 gallon tankers held crude oil. At least four were damaged by the accident. A large amount of fuel has also spilled into the Chaudiere River, which feeds into the St. Lawrence, and a mobile laboratory was brought to Lac-Megantic to monitor air quality.
Tar sands crude oil is currently transported from Alberta on trains as TransCanada and the government of Canada push the U.S. to approve the northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. The favorable State Department environmental report on the pipeline is centered on the assumption that the tar sands oil will be extracted and transported whether the pipeline is approved or not.
Yet Canadian Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver said in April that transporting tar sands by train is a “poor alternative” to transporting it by pipeline. Actually both are extremely poor alternatives compared to simply not opening a spigot to world’s largest and dirtiest pools of carbon in the first place.