Sunday, July 7, 2013

UPDATE 12-February-2014: Trains, Oil and Fire: A 'War Zone' in Lac Megantic, QC

UPDATE 12-February-2013:  The Transport Safety Board issued repeated infraction notices, and were aware of the non-compliance with this company for a decade (CBC News).

On July 6, 2013, an unmanned, 72-car MM&A train carrying crude oil rolled down a grade and into the town of Lac-Mégantic, Que., where it derailed and exploded, killing 47 people.

There are so many wrongs in that statement.  In my view, not the least of which is the responsibility of the company to operate within the limits of existing regulations.  This is appalling.  An unintended consequence of the capitalistic system.  It is built on the rule of law and a tremendous amount of trust making it vulnerable to 'gaming'.  Corruption, dishonesty, and self-interest have been shown to exist at many levels.  It is even argued that it is remnant of our competitive advantage as hunters and gatherers.  I believe that many of society's current ills can be directly linked to a general lack of integrity and honesty, and a recognition that there is more to life and the values this behaviour supports.


UPDATE August 8, 2013:  Though I suppose it might not be a surprise, a turn for the worse for the people and lands affected.

Lac Mégantic rail disaster company MM&A files for bankruptcy

The rail company involved in the Lac Mégantic train disaster last month has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. CBC News has confirmed that the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic railway filed for protection from its creditors in a U.S.  CLICK HERE FOR MORE

UPDATE: July 11
Reuters has an indepth piece this morning (HERE).  Their discussion is around the number of handbrakes set.   The train's engineer has commented that 11 handbrakes were set.  To many experts and consultants, this does not seem adequate, particularly considering the load, and the grade.  As noted in the story, this will likely lead to a refinement of the procedures for securing trains.  However, I think the real challenge is how to make people act responsibly.  If the train's engineer barely took 30 minutes to secure the train late in the evening, it appears there is an element of possibly not doing everything that they know they should in the name of time and getting rest.  Hopefully there is something good that can come out of this event ~ as noted by Reuters, this is the worst train accident in more than two decades ~ and now a criminal investigation.

UPDATE: July 10
There has been considerable space given to the tragedy in Megantic.  The death toll has risen and all accounts seem to point to significant more loss of life with all the missing persons.  I read in one story that the force of the blast may very well have quite literally 'vaporized' some victims.  The aerial photo below shows a very obvious blast zone and particular thrusts ~ and everything in those zones is just plain gone.

SOURCE (Photo)
Regarding the cause and the Transport Safety Board (TSB) piecing together what exactly happened, there appear to be some undisputed facts like the runaway nature with a steep (in rail terms) grade, the timing of the movement, and the incident with the small fire on-board one of the engines.  Also seems that a different train engineer attended the small fire, and upon leaving, turned off the engine that had been left idling by the train's engineer.

I also read a letter to the Vancouver Sun saying that the reason why the engine was running was to maintain the air brakes.  Turning the engine off, would over time allow the brakes to lose pressure and release.

Or I had also read that the engine and 72 cars were disconnected for safety reasons during the small fire incident.  Possibly, there was a simple failure of the brakes on these cars or some other system failure without the benefit of being connected with the engines.

The Chairman of the Company is in his own words, devastated, and referenced the engineers responsibility, citing the employee had been placed on leave without pay.  There seems to be more than enough blame to throw around.  Nothing will change for those directly affected.  The effects of this disaster will be felt for a long time.

This train was full with Bakken oil.  As of April 2013, the Bakken is producing more than 700,000bbls/d.  There is no significant pipeline infrastructure to move that product in the area.  Enbridge, Koch and others are strongly pursuing developing pipeline options.  The trains have been picking up the slack.  A fully loaded train at the top of a steep grade should never have been unsecured, and unattended.  There are the family and friends of many people that wish the tape could be rewound.

The news of yesterday's catastrophe in Lac Megantic, QC is an unimaginable tragedy of enormous proportions.  The details of circumstances are very preliminary.  The earliest reports are that the train was a runaway, a unit parked for the night, and unattended.  Is that normal operating procedure with hazardous material cargo?  Was it a mechanical failure?  There is reference to a fire prior to the train rolling away.  It then appears that the train rolled several kilometers into town and with no one monitoring the unintended progress, and the failures escalated from there.

The debate of transporting oil and its risks is again thrust to the fore.  With Keystone XL and NGP projects in process at the moment, there has been a lot written about the options, risks, the need to provide access to market, and the costs to Canada by not doing so.  In the meantime, oil transportation by rail is ever growing, as WCSD and oilsands production grows.

Petroleum, in one form or another is at the center of our standard of living and the modern conveniences we all enjoy (i.e., energy, food, shelter, material, by-product, etc.).  Its safe transportation free of significant risks to public health and safety, and the environment is critically important to society's overall well being - if the risks are not adequately mitigated, the process becomes unproductive to the greater good rather quickly. While reparations and an extended recovery period bring significant economic activity, the circumstances of which and the latent effects on people and society are not desirable, nor positive to productive capacity.

There is risk in life, period.  Managing life is all about managing risk in one form or another, consciously, or subconsciously.  Our life is made up of the choices we make.  Don't like life?  Make a different choice.

The during and after scenes from last evening's blast are horrifying.  The long lasting effects on the land and the people are mostly immeasurable.  The push to use the railways for transporting oil is directly related to the access to market, and the lack thereof.  If you cannot get your product to the buyer - there is no market for your product.  This has become a societal decision, consciously made for the collective good.  Rail has been picking up the slack from the lack of transportation space elsewhere.

Operational risks are everywhere for rail, pipelines, drilling platforms, mining, quite literally in all of our resource development initiatives.  Regardless of the risk, this train being released from its secure position should have never turned into this circumstance.  Whether it was a mechanical, human, or extraterrestrial failure, the reality is there should have been multiple 'functional' redundancies.  The potential risk of this release from a secure position should have been contemplated, and risk adjusted, as part of an operations plan for the company, the line and the cargo type.

Nature operates on the basis of access to high levels of redundancy, or resiliency, and even replacements (i.e., the other three R's).  As we have observed within a number of different human built realms, the Black Swan events, the 28s.d. away from the norm events, the low probability events with the most significant consequence > are the ones that sting the most (i.e., with the greatest consequences).  Nature's redundancy and resiliency 'allow' for those events (i.e., avalanches, floods, earthquakes, etc.).  Not necessarily repeatedly, but on occasion, landscapes and populations locally, and regionally, are quite literally wiped out, and rebuilt from the foundation of those three R's.  Our economies, capital markets, trade balances, infrastructure, climate and I think quite literally every aspect of our being that is modeled does not address this integration of 3Rs.  And nature does not expect that productivity will return to normal anytime soon.

Can we plan for and accommodate a 1:1,000 or 1:1,000,000 event?  Probably not.  It is a matter of recognizing this as a conscious decision where the value placed on the consequences of the event are less than the value of a different choice.  In this case, the runaway train and the lack redundancies in place led to severe consequences > the value of the consequences did not exceed the value of mitigation.  In the case of Calgary's floods, not dissimilar.  In Lac Megantic ~ a train with hazardous cargo shall not be left alone with no monitoring, and there should have been multiple redundancies to stop/divert/alarm the event once it was triggered.  In Calgary, don't build on flood plains.  I like living by the water too ~ but it is an acknowledged and accepted risk.  My rule is, if the consequences of any action are not tolerable, than the only way to completely avoid the consequences is to not undertake the action.  If you didn't think it could happen ~ another reason not to proceed ~ the decision process is flawed or lacks sufficient information.  Just as the transit across the Bonnybrook bridge should not have been assumed to be ok when CP admitted that it was too unsafe and virtually impossible to confirm the status of the bridge piers.  

Such events cannot ever be completely avoided, but the consequences can be managed with the highest values placed on public safety and security, and protection of the environment.

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