Oil shipments by rail in Maine

Since 2011, oil shipments across Maine to New Brunswick have skyrocketed. The Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway and Pan Am Railways carry crude oil that originated in North Dakota to a refinery owned by J.D. Irving in St. John, New Brunswick. An Irving subsidiary, Eastern Maine Railway, connects to the MM&A and Pan Am lines in Mattawamkeag. Pan Am has not yet reported its oil total for April.

Source: Maine Department of Environmental Protection

July 12, 2013

Is Maine on top of oil-by-rail risks?

It has little authority on safety and a shrinking spill-cleanup fund amid soaring oil shipments.

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 that ship crude oil and legislators’ decisions to raid a designated cleanup fund.

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A Pan Am Railways train moves oil through Portland’s Riverton neighborhood in May.

Dennis Hoey/2013 Press Herald file

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TO VIEW railroad safety records in the U.S. maintained by the Federal Railroad Administration, go to: http://safetydata.fra.dot.gov/officeofsafety/default.aspx

TO SEARCH crashes for Montreal, Maine & Atlantic specifically, go to: http://1.usa.gov/12GxTod

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

The Maine Department of Transportation found in 2006 that most of the track on those lines barely had the capacity to support a modern tank car filled with oil.

Those facts stand out amid questions about safeguards against an accident similar to the one last weekend in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, where a runaway train caused an explosion and fire that left 24 people dead and another 26 presumed dead.

The disaster is particularly relevant for Maine because the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway train was scheduled to cross the state with 50,000 barrels of light crude oil on its way to New Brunswick.

Nearly 5.3 million barrels passed through the state last year, and the number is 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 heavy crude, said 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 rail traffic and the disaster in Lac-Megantic have already prompted a review of Maine’s rail safety conditions and disaster preparedness. Gov. Paul LePage signed an executive order this week 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 rail companies themselves, which employ their own inspectors. The federal agency is responsible for making sure the companies comply with safety regulations.

In Maine, track inspection is assigned to one state employee deputized by the Federal Railroad Administration. Maine Department of Transportation 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.”

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 offices, in addition to 170 state inspectors. The U.S. rail system consists of 760 railroads with 230,000 employees and 200,000 miles of operating track.

Because the railroad administration is so small relative to the industry, the railroads themselves are the primary guarantors of safety, the report said.

The condition and inspections of Maine’s railroads have been a topic of discussion in the past. In 2006, the state Department of Transportation published a report that said budget constraints, decreased federal dollars and limited investment by railroad companies threatened to deteriorate the infrastructure.

The report also said that status quo maintenance wasn’t keeping pace with the industry.

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

A modern oil tanker car carries 650 barrels – 27,300 gallons – of oil and has a maximum weight of 285,000 pounds, said Steven Kelly, senior vice president of Purvin & Gertz, a consulting company for the oil and gas industry.

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

(Continued on page 2)

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Today's poll: Moving oil

Are you concerned about crude-oil trains running along the shores of Moosehead Lake?

Yes

No

View Results