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Lac-Mégantic

EcoUnionist News #25

Compiled by x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, January 26, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

The following news items feature issues, discussions, campaigns, or information potentially relevant to green unionists:

Lead Stories:

Crude by Rail:

Carbon Bubble:

Green Jobs and Just Transition:

Other News of Interest:

For more green news, please visit our news feeds section on ecology.iww.org; Twitter #IWWEUC

Fighting Fatigue

By Jenny Brown - Labor Notes, December 3, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Paul Proudlock went to bed at midnight to calibrate his sleep for a freight train he was to drive at 2 p.m. the next day. At 2:15 a.m., a Canadian Pacific dispatcher called him and asked him to take a passenger train in three hours.

“I’m not rested,” Proudlock is heard explaining in a company recording. The dispatcher threatened to discipline him and cancel his 2 p.m. train. “You’re obligated to go. If you answer the phone, you have to go.”

“No, I’m not,” said Proudlock. “I’m obligated to do the safe thing first… I drive a train.”

This kind of pressure is commonplace, according to railroad and airline workers. They say managers push workers to pilot planes, trains, and buses when they are too tired to safely do so. The stakes are high for the workers—and for the general public.

3/4 FELL ASLEEP

In a survey of freight train operators conducted by the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, 96 percent said they had gone to work tired. More alarmingly, three-quarters said they fell asleep while working—in the previous month. Among those who, like Proudlock, turned down jobs because of fatigue, 43 percent said they faced investigation or discipline.

“They’ll pressure people… and people don’t know what leg to stand on,” said CSX locomotive engineer J.P. Wright, who is based in Kentucky. “There are so many gray areas in the contract, if you could see a flow chart, it’s like a Merrie Melodies crazy cartoon.”

The railroads claim they don’t push people to work tired. Regulators scolded Canadian Pacific in the Proudlock case.

The main problem with freight railroads, said Wright, is that “they’ve short-staffed everything to the bone.” So when somebody takes time off, others have to unexpectedly fill in, creating cascades of scheduling complexity.

While rest times were increased in a 2008 rewrite of railroad scheduling rules, fatigue problems persist.

And regulations don’t help if the penalties are low, along with the chances of being fined. “I was just told, on a recorded CSX line, that they knew specifically they were violating the rest law but they would just go ahead and pay the fine,” said Wright, who is co-chair of the cross-union caucus Railroad Workers United.

The Lac-Mégantic disaster: was it just the brakes? - The Big Problem with Letting Small Railroads Haul Oil

By Eric de Place and Rich Feldman - Sightline Daily, October 8, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

The disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec—where 47 people were killed by a Bakken oil train derailment—is commonly understood to have resulted from a train slipping its brakes and then rolling downhill into town where it crashed disastrously. It was a tragedy, but it should not be considered just a mechanical accident.

In truth, it was a self-reinforcing chain of events and conditions caused by underinvestment, lack of maintenance, and staff cutbacks. And it’s a lesson the Northwest should heed because it illuminates the risks of allowing small regional and short line railroads to pick up unit trains of crude oil from bigger railroads like BNSF and transport them short distances to refineries and terminals. The Northwest is home to at least two small railroads with big oil-by-rail aspirations. One already hauls oil trains several times a week through Portland and small towns in northwest Oregon while the other, plagued by a string of recent derailments, aims to service no fewer than three terminals at the Port of Grays Harbor.

The story from Quebec—of what happened to the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic (MMA) railroad—is the story of a disaster waiting to happen. MMA was a regional railroad assembled in 2002 by a holding company from the assets of bankrupt Iron Road Railways, which owned four small railroads operating in Maine, Vermont, and Quebec. MMA had struggled financially from the start just as its major customers in the forestry industry also struggled. It went through a series of cutbacks to staff and maintenance.

Increased traffic from oil-by-rail was going to be MMA’s ticket to financial stability. Instead, following the Lac-Mégantic wreck, MMA was forced into bankruptcy, leaving billions of dollars of cleanup and damage costs uncovered by its minimal insurance.

What happened was this. MMA picked up the ill-fated oil train of Bakken crude from the Montreal yard of a big player in North American rail, Canadian Pacific (CP), and was transporting it to a refinery in New Brunswick. After passing through Lac-Mégantic, the engineer parked the train on a hill above town for the night. He is now accused of setting an insufficient number of hand brakes that were acting as a back-up to the train’s air-brake system and of not performing a brake test effectively. The hand brake issue only became a problem because locomotive 5017, which was powering the air-brake system for the entire oil train, was shut down.*

And the reason this locomotive was turned off? Because when it had caught on fire earlier in the night the responding firefighters had to turn it off.

And the reason this locomotive caught on fire? Chronic underinvestment by the railroad. According to court documents, MMA’s own employees point to underinvestment by the railway that led to the company using second-hand locomotives, operating rundown equipment, tolerating damaged tracks, and performing minimal maintenance. One worker testified that “he saw little maintenance done on locomotives and that locomotive 5017 was in particularly poor condition.”

Blood on the Tracks: Saying No to Warren Buffett

By Guy Miller; image by Mike Konopacki - CounterPunch, September 26, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

The City of New Orleans by Steve Goodman is a loving tribute to an era gone-by. Steve mourned what he perceived to be ”the disappearing railroad blues.” He takes a nostalgic look back at an America that looks better through the sepia tones of memory than it actually was. Steve Goodman was unquestionably a great song writer, but for all that, he was a lousy economist. America’s railroads are anything but disappearing. Rather than a relic from another time, they are at the forefront of American capital’s plan for the 21st century. If you don’t live along the major corridors of rail traffic, it is easy to miss this vital aspect of the US economy.

For people that live in, or near, one of the cities that stretch from Boston to Washington, when they think about railroads at all, they generally think first about Amtrak. Everyone who uses Amtrak has a horror story to tell. Even the premium Acela train is seen as not measuring up to the trains of Europe or China. The primary reason high speed passenger trains aren’t a priority in the US is simple: freight traffic makes too damn much money. Wherever in the world there are fast and efficient passenger trains, freight traffic is secondary, or non existent. There was a time in the United States when freight traffic was shunted to the side to make room for passenger trains. To the major railroads that was a waste of time and money.

If high speed passenger service were to be successful two essential things would be needed: 1. Government subsidies (or better yet total nationalization) and 2. A huge upgrade in infrastructure. File the first requirement under the category of “come the revolution,” and the second under unlikely. The infrastructure is just fine for what the major carriers want to accomplish. They do not want, or need tracks, or roadbeds, that can safely move 15,000 tons of freight at 100 miles per hour, sixty MPH will do nicely, thank you. Building and maintaining the right-of-way is an expensive and labor intensive proposition. Even with cost-cutting machinery it is viewed by railroads as something to be kept to a minimum.

In the decade before the crash of 2008 railroad freight traffic exploded. From 1996 to 2006 railroad and truck traffic both grew, but railroad traffic grew faster. Using the metric of ton miles, the industry’s standard measurement, that decade saw rail traffic grow 25.1% and truck traffic grow 21.8%. This boom is still being fueled by the growth of “unit trains.” Unit trains, as opposed to manifest trains, are a one trick pony. For example a train consisting solely of crude oil, or grain or coal are of unit trains. Such trains go from point A to point B with no stops in between. No setting out a cut of cars in Podunk, Iowa or picking up cars of lumber in Rochester, Minnesota. Much of America has become not only flyover country, but also roll-by country as well. This contrasts with the once more common manifest train. Such trains required switching at various points along the route. This change brought with it the loss of thousands of switching jobs, those jobs did indeed go the way of Steve Goodman’s disappearing railroad.

After years of consolidation American railroad evolved into five large carriers. With the aid of this monopoly the railroads were on track for bigger and bigger payoffs. My old boss, the Union Pacific has over 32,000 miles of tracks resulting from mergers and takeovers. In the second quarter of 2014 the Union Pacific saw its profits jump 17%.  This in the midst of an economy that is, at best, sputtering along.

Bakken Bomb Trains: Hell on Rails

By x356039 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, September 1, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Over the past two years the volume of bakken crude oil, extracted from the tar sand fields of Alberta, Wyoming, Utah, North and South Dakota, has skyrocketed by an astonishing 900%. Thanks in part to the work of many brave communities in the line of fire and the logistical difficulties of building a continent-spanning pipeline the companies extracting this toxic material have sought out other methods for moving the volume of material they desire for export overseas to China and points beyond. The solution they have settled on is to move the bakken crude by oil trains, some stretching over a mile, owned by high-powered corporate captains of industry like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates from the point of extraction to the points of refinement and distribution.

They argue the materials being ripped from the Earth's crust are vitally necessary for energy independence and economic growth. What these self-interested short-sighted tycoons overlook is the truly massive cost in far more real terms than a mere bottom line such decisions are inflicting on people, communities, and the biosphere. In spite of the measured, massaged tones they use to assuage the fully-justified fears of the public there is little doubt the extraction, refinement, and movement of bakken crude by rail is a clear and present danger to all life in the path of these deadly horsemen.

The first and surest sign of the threat these bomb trains pose is the town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec. A small community located on Lake Megantic it is the sort of place, prior to the summer of 2013, one would never have expected to become associated with the worst rail disaster in Canadian history and one of the worst ever in North America. One fateful evening a bakken crude train was pulled off to a siding by its lone crew member so they could take a break from an extremely long shift and catch up on much needed sleep. During the night the brakes securing the train came loose and the train rolled off the track, tipping over and rupturing the tanks containing the highly volatile bakken crude. Thanks to the incredibly low flash point of bakken crude, due to the nature of the refining process, the entire train load went up in a flash obliterating a huge swath of Lac-Megantic. In the rushing inferno that followed 47 people's lives were mercilessly snuffed out, from young children to the elderly, without warning or any possibility of escape.

In the immediate wake firefighters from across Quebec and neighboring Maine were called in to bring the fires under control, do whatever they could for the survivors, and bury the dead. So great was the ferocity of the blaze following the disaster that nothing less than such a massive mobilization of emergency personnel would stand a chance. All were left stunned, shocked, and wondering how such a catastrophe could be visited on their homes with no warning of any kind. In the words of Tim Pellerin, fire chief for Rangeley, Maine, “It was like a World War II bombing zone. There was just block after block of everything incinerated. All that was left were foundations and chimneys. Everything burned. The buildings, the asphalt, the grass, the trees, the telephone poles. Just about everything was incinerated.” In the investigations following Lac-Megantic many facts came to light as to how so much harm could be caused, proving without question the devastation was no fluke but a very real, predictable possibility.

An Arresting Experience: Doing direct action at BNSF Delta Yard

By Patrick Mazza - Cascadia Planet, September 8, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Following is the story of why I and four others engaged in an act of civil resistance at BNSF Delta Yard in Everett, Washington September 2.  The act was intended to draw attention to a Petition for Redress of Grievances Inflicted by Fossil Fuels.  Please sign our petition here

I am a veteran climate activist.  I have written about the climate crisis for over 25 years and for most of the last 15 worked full-time to advance climate solutions.  I have spent a lot of time trying to stop global warming sitting in front of a computer.  On September 2, 2014 it was time to sit in front of a train. 

Five of us attached ourselves to a tripod made of three 18-foot steel poles erected across a train track at Delta Junction, the north end of BNSF’s Everett Delta staging yard.  I locked myself at the foot of one of the poles.  School teachers Liz Spoerri and Jackie Minshew and coffee shop owner Mike Lapointe fastened themselves to the others. Abby Brockway, a house painter and artist, ascended to perch at the top.

Our banner, “Cut Oil Trains, Not Conductors,” expressed solidarity with railroad workers fighting against dangerous, single-person train crews.  During the day the action drew numerous supporting honks from truckers driving across the bridge above.

Around 150 yards to the south an orange BNSF engine was linked at the head of a black mile-long snake of tanker cars filled with North Dakota Bakken shale oil.  This is the same extraordinarily unstable crude that on July 6, 2013 leveled several city blocks and incinerated 47 people at Lac-Megantic on the Quebec-Maine border.  That exploded in fireballs after derailments October 19, 2013 in Edmonton, Alberta and November 8, 2013 in Aliceville, Alabama. A derailment and fire December 30, 2013 in Casselton, North Dakota erupted in a toxic plume that forced evacuations in a five-mile radius.  Another Bakken train derailed and was engulfed in flames January 7, 2014 in Plaster Rock, New Brunswick.

Every week oil trains each carrying up to three million gallons of volatile Bakken crude trundle through Seattle 8 to 13 times and Washington up to 19 times, according to BNSF’s own figures. Sightline's Eric de Place reports that oil unit train traffic through Washington has risen from essentially zero in August 2012 to an average of 2.6 trains a day. They run past stadiums and heavily populated neighborhoods, and through tunnels underneath Seattle and Everett.  Just this July 24 a nearly 100-tanker train derailed beneath the Magnolia Bridge in Seattle.  Fortunately no toxic fireball . . . this time.

350.ORG Seattle Opposes Single-Employee Trains

By 350 Seattle - August 6, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Whereas, 350 Seattle supports the use of railroads to transport mixed freight and passengers as the most environmental and less carbon intensive way of doing this; and

Whereas, a single freight train can take the load of several hundred trucks off the highway, but due to the over congestion of unit trains carrying crude petroleum products and coal forces grain producers and others to transport their products once again by trucks on the highways; and

Whereas, the number of trains carrying crude petroleum products and coal has skyrocketed and they are a lot more dangerous to railroad workers, our communities, and fragile ecosystems on land and water; and

Whereas, in the wake of the Lac Megantic tragedy and numerous other train wrecks in the last year, we have an historic opportunity to build alliances with community and railroad worker groups to outlaw single employee train crews;

Whereas, we at 350 Seattle universally support a minimum of two crew members on every train, an engineer and a conductor, for the purposes of basic railroad safety; and

Whereas, the BLET and the SMART have joined forces and have been working hand in hand to outlaw Single Employee Train Crews; and

Whereas, a rogue general committee of the SMART–TD has recently announced a tentative agreement, that would, if implemented, eliminate the road conductor on through freight and allow single employee crews;

Therefore, be it resolved, that 350 Seattle affirms our opposition to single employee train operations and that we support an engineer and a conductor on every train; and

Be it further resolved, that 350 Seattle supports HR 3040, which would mandate a conductor and engineer on every train; and

Be it further resolved, that 350 Seattle urges all rail union members to actively oppose contracts that would allow single employee operations of trains; and

Be it finally resolved, that 350 Seattle stands in solidarity with all rail road worker unions and union members who are standing up and fighting back against the tentative agreement by SMART-TD and the BNSF to eliminate the road conductor on through freight and allow single employee crews;

Adopted by the general membership of 350 Seattle on August 6th, 2014.

Report Reveals Cost Cutting Measures At Heart Of Lac-Megantic Oil Train Disaster

By Justin Mikulka - DeSmog Blog, August 19 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Today the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) released its final report on the July 6th, 2013 train derailment in Lac-Megantic, Quebec. The report produced a strong reaction from Keith Stewart, Greenpeace Canada’s Climate and Energy Campaign coordinator.

“This report is a searing indictment of Transport Canada’s failure to protect the public from a company that they knew was cutting corners on safety despite the fact that it was carrying increasing amounts of hazardous cargo. This lax approach to safety has allowed the unsafe transport of oil by rail to continue to grow even after the Lac Megantic disaster. It is time for the federal government to finally put community safety ahead of oil and rail company profits or we will see more tragedies, Stewart said.”

Throughout the report there is ample evidence to support Stewart’s position and plenty to show why the people of Lac-Megantic want the CEO of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (MMA), the rail company responsible for the accident, held accountable in place of the engineer and other low level employees currently facing charges.

At the press conference for the release of the report the TSB representatives often noted that they had found 18 factors that contributed to the actual crash and they were not willing to assign blame to anyone, claiming that wasn’t their role.

But several critical factors stand out and they are the result of MMA putting profits ahead of safety and Transport Canada (TC), the Canadian regulators responsible for overseeing rail safety, failing to do its job.

BNSF Nears Shift To One-Member Crews, Possibly Even on Dangerous Oil Trains

By Cole Stangler - DeSmog Blog, July 19, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

For decades, the U.S. railroad industry has successfully shed labor costs by shifting to smaller and smaller operating crews. Now, it’s on the verge of what was once an unthinkable victory: single-member crews, even on dangerous oil trains.

A tentative agreement reached by BNSF Railway and the Transportation Division of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation (SMART) union would allow a single engineer to operate most of the company’s routes. It would mark a dramatic change to a labor contract that covers about 3,000 workers, or 60 percent of the BNSF system.  

It’s not just bad news for workers. The contract has major safety implications—especially amid North America’s dangerous, and sometimes deadly, crude-by-rail boom. Last year’s Bakken shale oil train derailment and explosion in Lac Mégantic, Quebec, which killed 47 people, brought increased scrutiny to oil trains. 

What Have We Learned Since Lac-Mégantic?

By Eric de Place - Sightline Daily, July 6, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

A year ago today, in the small hours of the morning, a parked oil train slipped its brakes, rolled downhill, and derailed in a small town in Quebec. When the tank cars breached, they caught fire and erupted into a towering fireball that leveled several blocks of town and incinerated 47 people almost instantly.

That horrific disaster ushered in a new era of fear about crude oil-by-rail shipments.

Two weeks earlier Sightline had published the first regional inventory anywhere of oil-by-rail projects. We pointed out that Oregon and Washington are home to nearly a dozen active or proposed oil train depots that in aggregate would move about as much crude as the Keystone XL Pipeline—and far more than the region’s oil refining capacity. We released the report widely, and the response we got back sounded a lot like crickets chirping.

But after the explosion in Quebec, our phones started ringing off the hook.

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