Canada rail disaster may offer warning for Minnesota

10:57 PM, Jul 8, 2013   |    comments
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MINNEAPOLIS - A Minnesota environmental leader says the rail disaster in Lac Megantic, Quebec should serve as warning in places like Minnesota.

Like many northern states, Minnesota has seen a steep increase in the number of tankers on its rails carrying crude oil.

"The tragedy in Canada is such a sad loss of life and unfortunately I think it illustrates the increased risks that our communities are facing," said Margaret Levin, state director of the Sierra Club.

A series of massive explosions and fuel-fed fires incinerated 30 buildings in downtown Lac Megantic, leaving 13 people confirmed dead and dozens of others missing. The disaster started after a chain of railcars unhitched from their parked locomotive, rolling several miles back into town before derailing.

In the United States, crude oil shipments by rail are growing exponentially -- from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to more than 200,000 in 2012, according to the Association of American Railroads.

A significant number of those shipments are traveling through Minnesota from the booming Bakken oil field in North Dakota and the oil sands of Alberta, Canada. The destinations are refineries further south and east.

The tank cars that broke free and derailed in Quebec carried North Dakota crude. This past March it was 30,000 gallons of Canadian oil that leaked from ruptured rail cars in Parkers Prairie, north of Alexandria.

"The regulations we have for rail transfer weren't designed to support rail moving massive amounts of oil, so it wouldn't be a surprise at all if our regulations weren't up to the task of what's happening right now," said Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations in an interview with NBC.

Those pushing for more pipelines may use the Canada disaster to shore up their argument that rail shipment of crude is a more dangerous option. But the AAR insists rail transportation is safe, stating on its website, "99.9977 percent of rail hazmat carloads in 2010 reached their destination without a release caused by a train accident."

The Sierra club isn't about to choose sides between rail and pipeline, preferring instead that the crude be left in the ground.

"What we have to do is break our addiction to oil and move toward solutions," said Levin.

She prefers conservation, mass transit and green energy to pumping and transporting more oil.

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