The Rangeley fire chief will testify before Congress on Wednesday morning in support of increased hazardous-material training for fire departments in the wake of last summer’s deadly train accident in Lac-Megantic, Quebec.
Fire Chief Tim Pellerin was one of 30 firefighters from eight Franklin County fire departments who responded in July to the train derailment and fire in Lac-Megantic that killed 47 people and destroyed a large section of the Quebec town.
Pellerin will testify about his experience and his support of a proposal backed by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to provide training for those who respond to situations involving hazardous transportation materials.
On July 6, a Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train pulling 72 oil-laden tank cars and having faulty brakes rolled driverless down an incline into Lac-Megantic while the train conductor was on a sleep break. The tank cars derailed in the downtown area, spilling about 1.5 million gallons of crude oil and causing an explosion and fire that destroyed 40 buildings.
Collins requested that Pellerin provide testimony at a hearing of the Senate Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, which is working on a federal funding bill for fiscal year 2015.
Pellerin said Tuesday he was “absolutely shocked” to be asked to speak before Congress, and he said he felt honored that it was important to Collins to support increased training for emergency responders.
“I hope it makes a difference,” Pellerin said. “There’s more and more hazardous material being transported by rail. I’d say fire departments are prepared and ready to handle a common emergency, but it’s the uncommon emergency that can really get us.”
Other scheduled witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing include Anthony Foxx, secretary of the Department of Transportation; Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board; and Barb Graff, director of the Office of Emergency Management in Seattle.
Pellerin is scheduled to testify at 9:45 a.m.
“It’s a little unnerving,” Pellerin said. “It’s one thing to go to your town council, and it’s another thing to go to testify in Congress.”
Collins in a prepared statement Tuesday that the Lac-Megantic accident also highlights the need for rail safety improvements.
“The tremendous growth in transporting crude oil by rail is an energy boost for our country, but it also potentially represents a new hazard to the communities these railcars travel through,” Collins said.
Franklin County firefighters were called to assist in putting out the Lac-Megantic blaze around 4 a.m. the morning of the explosion. The Canadian town is about a dozen miles over the U.S. border from Franklin County, but 93 miles by road from Farmington.
Firefighters arrived around 6 a.m. and had to work around the chaos, a communication problem and incompatible equipment while fighting the blaze.
“Despite challenges posed by incompatible hose couplings, different radio systems, and even a language barrier in French-speaking Quebec, Maine and Canadian firefighters worked side-by-side to quickly and effectively douse the flames and mitigate the damage caused by this dreadful accident,” Collins said.
As a career firefighter who has worked at departments around the state for the last 30 years, Pellerin said the explosion’s aftermath was beyond anything he had ever seen or trained for.
“It was such a disastrous scene,” he said. “It was a huge proportion of the town. There were five or six city blocks wiped out.”
Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252