A memorial service to mark the one-year anniversary of the oil train explosion in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, was held in Waterville on July 6. Since the Lac-Megantic disaster, which killed 47 people, several more oil train derailments and explosions have occurred in the United States.

The next train explosion could occur in downtown Oakland, Waterville or Fairfield. In Lac-Megantic, everything within one-third of a mile of the derailment was destroyed, and there was partial destruction up to 6/10ths of a mile. Many homes and businesses in central Maine would be in a similar zone of destruction.

The train cars that exploded in Lac-Megantic and in many towns across America were DOT-111 tank cars, which have a thin skin that is prone to puncture. Canada has outlawed the use of this kind of tanker for transporting crude oil. Unfortunately, DOT-111 oil tankers have continued to roll through central Maine this year, while the newer, safer rail cars are being sent to Canada.

In response to this threat, the Association of American Railroads has called for hardening or updating 85 percent of the railroad cars now moving oil in the United States. About 78,000 tank cars would need to be replaced, and, at the current rate of manufacturing rail cars, this could take a decade.

On May 9, the Maine Municipal Association criticized the U.S. Department of Transportation’s failure to ban the unsafe DOT-111 railroad cars from carrying explosive fuels. Peter Nielson, president of the Maine Municipal Association and town manager of Oakland, asked President Barack Obama and our Maine congressional delegation to action to protect our community by banning DOT-111 oil tankers.

The federal government could take at least four more steps to protect us.

• The company that owns the railroad cars could be offered tax breaks for replacing the DOT-111 cars with safer rail cars more quickly.

• Crude oil could be made safer before it is shipped. Partial distillation can remove the explosive gases from crude oil, making it much less prone to explosion. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, however, stripping out volatile liquids could hurt profits by reducing the volume of crude for sale. Stabilizing the crude could cut potential revenue by perhaps 2 percent, an industry executive estimates. We do not believe a 2 percent reduction in profits is an acceptable excuse for exposing our families to danger.

• Our government also could enforce existing mandates that the railroads maintain their tracks better. Derailments would be reduced if railroad ties that are too decayed to hold the tracks firmly were replaced.

• Sparks from trains cause fires in dry brush along the sides of railroad tracks, and this brush is supposed to be removed.

The railroad and oil companies resist taking such steps because they cost money. As Neilson said, however, the first role of government is to protect us. It is time for our government to put our safety ahead of corporate profits.

Richard Thomas of Waterville is a co-leader, with Linda Woods, of 350 Central Maine, a group of local citizens who study and advocate for actions to reduce the long-term threat that climate change poses to our community. Lately, he has studied the more immediate risk caused by transporting oil by rail or pipeline in Maine.


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