July 11, 2013

Maine's capacity to handle oil industry in question following disaster in Quebec

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

and Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Maine’s financial capacity to respond to an oil spill has been cut by 60 percent since 2005 because of a sharp decrease in tariffs collected from companies shipping crude oil and legislators’ decisions to raid a designated cleanup fund.

click image to enlarge

Crude oil tankers from the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic railways are seen in the heart of downtown Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where the runaway train exploded killing at least 20 with 40 others still missing and presumed dead.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

Meanwhile, as crude oil shipments across Maine skyrocket, oversight of the state’s 1,154 miles of railroads is largely left to one federal inspector and the private companies that own the lines.

Most of the track on those lines barely had the capacity to support a modern tank car filled with oil, according to a 2006 Maine Department of Transportation study.

Those facts stand out amid questions about safeguards against a train accident similar to the one that occurred in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that recent reports say could claim at least 60 lives. The disaster is particularly relevant for Maine, the scheduled pass-through for the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train that was hauling 50,000 barrels of light crude oil on its way to New Brunswick.

Nearly 5.3 million barrels passed through the state last year, a number that’s on the rise as market forces make Maine a waypoint for oil extracted from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota. The light crude from Bakken is also more explosive than traditional heavy crude, according to Mark Kaiser, a professor and director of research at the Center for Energy Studies at Louisiana State University.

“It’s a hazardous material and volatile,” Kaiser said. “The lighter it is, the more volatile, with the extreme being gasoline.”

The increased freight activity and the Lac-Megantic accident have already prompted a review of the state’s rail safety conditions and disaster preparedness. Gov. Paul LePage this week signed an executive order calling for a safety review.

However, the state has little authority over its railroads, most of which are privately owned. Oversight falls to the Federal Railroad Administration and the private railroad companies themselves, which employ their own inspectors. The federal agency is charged with making sure the private companies comply with safety regulations.

In Maine, track inspection is assigned to one state employee deputized by the Federal Railroad Administration. Maine Transportation Department spokesman Ted Talbot said the federal agency determines the inspector’s schedule.

“States have no regulatory role over the railroads,” said Talbot. “The idea behind the governor’s order is to take a look at those federal safety reports.”

Safety oversight of Maine’s rails reflects national conditions. Last month the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog agency for the federal government, reported that the Federal Railroad Administration has 470 inspectors in its headquarters and regional office in addition to 170 state inspectors. The U.S. railroad system consists of 760 railroads with 230,000 employees and 200,000 miles of operational track.

FRA is a small agency relative to the railroad industry, making the railroads themselves the primary guarantors of railroad safety, the report noted.

The condition and inspection of the state’s railroads have been a topic of discussion before. In 2006, a report published by MDOT found that budget constraints, decreased federal dollars and limited investment by railroad companies threatened to deteriorate the infrastructure. It also found that status quo maintenance wasn’t keeping pace with the industry.

According to the study, 92 percent of Maine’s active track would not support a 286,000 pound rail car, which the report said, “is quickly becoming the rail industry standard.”

A modern oil tanker car carries 650 barrels of oil and has a maximum weight of 285,000 pounds, according to Steven Kelly, senior vice president at Purvin & Gertz, a consulting company for the oil and gas industry.

Pan Am Railways and Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway are two of the leading carriers of the Bakken crude. The companies did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

(Continued on page 2)

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