As searchers and investigators sifted through the rubble of the deadly fire that erupted when a train hauling oil derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, Maine officials are looking at whether a similar disaster could happen here and how prepared emergency responders would be if it did.

Railroads are not required to notify local officials about the cargo their trains may be hauling or that may be stored temporarily in their community.

A joint order now being considered in the state Legislature calls on the Transportation Committee to study the transportation of hazardous materials, including petroleum products, and issue a report by Dec. 6.

“Given the magnitude of this tragedy, we must do all that we can to prevent another disaster like this from taking place,” said House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, who sponsored the bill. “Given the exponential growth in oil transport through our state, this accident could just as easily have taken place in a Maine town or city.”

The train in Saturday’s explosion about 10 miles from Maine’s Franklin County was hauling 72 rail cars loaded with two million gallons of highly flammable light crude oil from North Dakota across Maine to a refinery in New Brunswick.

The shipment was part of a surge in rail transport of oil in the last few years, which has led Maine emergency officials to confer with local counterparts about the best way to respond to possible fires or leaks of hazardous liquids.


“We’re making sure fire departments are aware of the hazards involved and that they prepare for it,” said Mark Hyland, operations and response director for the Maine Emergency Management Agency.

About 2,000 rail cars, each carrying 30,000 gallons of oil, traverse the state each month, carrying a total of more than 12 million gallons a year, Hyland said.

“It’s a dramatic increase from what we saw even two years ago,” he said. “We’re talking with the (Maine Department of Environmental Protection) about additional planning on a local basis for rail lines dealing with oil. We’re going to look at staging areas and how get to remote areas.”

The explosion in Lac-Megantic has highlighted the need for first responders across the state to be prepared and also called attention to the volumes and types of materials being hauled through Maine cities and towns on railroads — often without the knowledge of emergency officials.

The MM&A train had been parked near Lac-Megantic for the night, with one engine left running as the engineer completed his 12-hour day. The train was left unattended to wait for the new crew to arrive early the next morning.

In addition to the locomotive brakes, engineers are supposed to activate manual brakes on enough cars to prevent the train from moving, taking into account its weight and the incline of the track where it is parked. Canadian regulations require engineers to put the train in gear and attempt to move it to confirm that the brakes are set and adequate.


However, a fire broke out on the train about an hour before it hit the town. Firefighters shut down the locomotive when battling the engine fire and company officials have said that may have disabled the engine’s brakes. It’s not clear why the brakes on the rail cars didn’t hold, though officials are now exploring the possibility they were tampered with.

In general, crude oil is difficult to ignite and not particularly explosive. But unlike heavy crude oil, the light Bakken crude that the train was transporting is extremely flammable.

“In training, we heard from Irving it was a very lightweight crude, you could probably burn in your car — very close to gasoline and didn’t need a lot of refining,” Hyland said.

Hyland said state emergency planners have trained for major oil fires and have pre-positioned fire-suppressing foam around the state.

However, he said it would be difficult to prepare statewide for a fire of the magnitude of the one in Lac Megantic.

“This was a pretty dramatic incident. Certainly professional firefighters that were on the scene, guys with 30 years experience, said it was the worst they’ve ever seen,” he said.


Trainloads of oil and other hazardous cargo pass through Maine every day.

Cynthia Scarano, a spokeswoman for Pan Am Railways, which has lines through central Maine, said Pan Am works with communities on their emergency response. Pan Am’s tracks enter southern Maine in the Berwick area and follows the coast before going inland, through towns including Leeds, Winthrop, Belgrade, Oakland, Waterville, Fairfield and east. While the line has several dead-end spurs, the main track enters New Brunswick near Vanceboro.

“We have about 16 through freights (trains) through the state of Maine a day and 20 local trains that work throughout the state,” she said.

The types of substances that the railroads carry can vary widely.

The volume of oil and other commodities on the Pan Am railroad fluctuates from day to day, Scarano said, and oil is a relatively new commodity in the past year and a half.

“We occasionally had maybe an oil car here and there, but not as far as a dedicated train,” she said. Scarano cited industry statistics saying that 1.8 million car loads of hazardous materials was delivered by rail last year nationwide, with 99.99 percent delivered with no materials spilled.

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