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New stakes in the Lac-Mégantic frame up trial

By William C. Vantuonon - Railway Age, October 10, 2011 (reposted from The Evidence is in: The Train Crew did not Cause the Lac-Mégantic Tragedy)

TransCanada Corp’s recent decision to abandon its $12 billion plan to build the Energy East pipeline, combined with delays to other export pipeline projects, may create a resurgence in crude by rail (CBR) from Canada, according to a report from Reuters.

“Calgary-based TransCanada said on [Oct. 5] it will abandon Energy East, which would have taken crude from Alberta to the Atlantic Coast,” the news agency reported. “The move came after Canada’s National Energy Board (NEB) on Aug. 23 announced a tougher review process that would consider indirect greenhouse gas emissions.”

CBR is more expensive than pipeline for producers dealing with soft global oil prices. In the aftermath of the 2013 Lac-Mégantic disaster, and other CBR accidents that followed, the perception remains that CBR is less safe than pipeline. However, oil industry stakeholders say regulations for major energy projects in Canada “are now so stringent it is unlikely any company will try to build a new export pipeline,” Reuters noted. “A global oil market slump has also diminished appetite for building multibillion-dollar pipelines.”

As a result, Canada’s increasing crude oil production, expected to temporarily exceed pipeline capacity through 2019, “could face a longer-term lack of pipeline capacity and subsequent lower prices if crude becomes bottlenecked in Alberta,” Reuters said. “While pipeline congestion is bad news for producers, it will prove a boon for rail terminal operators who were badly burned when oil prices and CBR volumes crashed in 2014.”

Several crude oil producers and energy industry analysts Reuters contacted said that CBR traffic will increase:

  • TORQ Transloading expects to move up to 20,000 barrels per day (BPD) of CBR in 2018, a threefold increase over 2017. “We have seen a pickup in activity and heightened interest as we move into next year. Some people are signing contracts and there’s just more spot movement,” CEO Jarrett Zielinski said.
  • U.S. Development Partners LP and Gibson Energy, operators of a Hardisty, Alberta, terminal, have signed a three-year contract with a customer to ship 30,000 BPD of Canadian crude to Oklahoma, starting in October, using up idle loading capacity.
  • Analysts are expecting a surge in CBR exports later this year as two major oil sands projects in northern Alberta add 270,000 BPD to Canada’s current 3.85 million BPD of production. Three export pipeline projects currently under development—Kinder Morgan Canada’s Trans Mountain, Enbridge Inc.’s Line 3 and TransCanada’s Keystone XL—have been delayed by continuing environmental opposition and legal challenges. Analysts at Tudor Pickering Holt estimate Canadian CBR volumes will rise from fewer than 200,000 BPD in early 2018 to a peak of around 550,000 BPD in 2019, when the Trans Mountain and Line 3 expansions are scheduled to begin operating. And even though CBR costs are up to two times that of pipeline, low global crude oil prices mean some producers will have little choice but to deal with higher costs if pipeline delays persist.

“If it looks like Trans Mountain could get delayed for years, people will start to reconsider their approach as the cost of rail in the current price environment means it is really hard for producers to make a return,” Morningstar analyst Sandy Fielden told Reuters, adding that some producers may shut down production.

Accountability Foreclosed, Justice Denied

By Bruce Campbell - The Evidence is in: The Train Crew did not Cause the Lac-Mégantic Tragedy, October 9, 2017

The trial of the three front-line workers charged with criminal negligence causing death in the Lac-Mégantic oil train disaster, has now begun in a Sherbrooke, Québec courtroom. If found guilty, they could face life in prison. The defunct company, MMA, faces the same charges but its trial will be held at a later date. What are the consequences of an extinct corporate shell being found guilty, but minus charges against its executives and owner: none.

Many people in Lac-Mégantic believe that the right people are not on trial. I agree with them. The crown’s case will exclusively target the men closest to the disaster: those at the bottom of the pyramid of accountability. But individuals at higher levels of the pyramid have escaped accountability. They have not been blamed for their role in the disaster. Who are they?

Senior executives and directors of the delinquent company MMA, especially the owner Ed Burkhardt; no significant decisions were made without his permission: not held to account.

Transport Canada senior officials and the Minister, who allowed this delinquent company to continue operating without any sanctions; allowed it to cut corners and play Russian roulette with public safety; whose highly defective oversight system failed catastrophically: not held to account.

Conservative government leaders who exhibited complacency and casual indifference to the dangers of the mammoth surge in the transportation of volatile oil by rail: not held to account.

Industry lobbyists who pressured senior officials and politicians not to implement additional regulations to deal with this new and dangerous phenomenon: not held to account.

The senior Transport Canada official(s) who made the decision [with the tacit support of superiors]—over major opposition within Transport Canada itself and the unions—to allow MMA to operate its 12,000-ton high hazard oil trains through cities and towns piloted by a single person crew: not held to account.

The industry lobby, the Railway Association of Canada [RAC], which led the controversial redrafting of the Canadian rail operating rules, with Transport Canada’s complicity, creating a loophole that allowed companies to operate single person crew trains with virtually no conditions to ensure an equivalent level of safety; and which then lobbied aggressively on behalf of this blatantly negligent company to be the first in Canada to run massive oil trains with a single person crew: not held to account.

Conservative government leaders who were responsible for a dysfunctional culture within Transport Canada, and in the name of austerity starved its resources—including reducing the rail safety directorate’s budget by 20% during the years when oil by rail was increasing exponentially— impeding its capacity to cope with this emergent reality: not held to account.

A regulation-averse prime minister responsible for instituting a notorious one-for-one rule policy requiring agencies which proposed a new regulation, to eliminate at least one existing regulation regardless of its impact on safety, on the pretext that cutting “red tape” would unleash market forces of job creation and economic growth; a policy which likely stonewalled the implementation of regulations that might have mitigated the risks of this new threat: not held to account.

Deregulation by both Conservative and Liberal governments, which systematically weakened or eliminated regulations, replacing them with voluntary codes and industry self-regulation [euphemistically called co-regulation] with limited or no direct oversight by governments.

A rail safety regime that continues to rely on human infallibility and the discredited myth of corporate self-regulation, and expecting another result is, to paraphrase Einstein, the definition of insanity. Lac-Mégantic was collateral damage of decades of deregulation. And yet only those at the bottom of the responsibility pyramid have been blamed. None of those on its upper levels have admitted their role or been held to account. Until this happens the lessons of Lac-Mégantic will not have been learned; and justice for the citizens of Lac-Mégantic will be denied.

Lac Mégantic: Blame the Worker on Steroids

By Jordan Barab - Confined Space, September 28, 2017

An unmanned, half-mile long train “bomb train” carrying tank-cars full of highly explosive crude oil barrels toward a city where it is doomed to derail on a curve, killing everyone in its wake. Luckily, Denzel Washington and Chris Pine show up to save the city at the last second. Everyone lives happily every after.

That was the plot of the 2010 film “Unstoppable.” It’s a fun film. I recommend it.

In real life, however, in the small town of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec, Canada on July 5, 2016, Denzel and Chris never showed up.

At around 1:00 am on July 6, 2013, an unmanned train carrying 72 tank-cars of highly combustible crude oil barreled down a hill at 65 mph, three times the normal speed, and careened off the track, disgorging six million liters of highly combustible petroleum crude. Within moments the oil exploded. The resulting inferno obliterated most of the downtown and incinerated 47 persons.

As might be expected, there were many stories to be told here, and hopefully someone is writing a book: the safety of transporting highly hazardous crude oil in fragile tank cars over thousands of miles of poorly maintained track; the impact of an out-of control fossil fuel economy on the environment, on workers in the industry and on citizens in its wake; the damage caused by a rapacious rail company focused more on cost cutting than safety; and the weakness of government oversight (even in Canada.)

But the story we’ll be telling here is one that we’ve heard many times before — the tendency of those who have responsibility for a catastrophe to shift blame onto individual workers instead of identifying the root causes and systemic problems that, if addressed, could prevent future catastrophes.  In this case we’re focusing on the arrest of the engineer and sole crew member, Tom Harding, as well as traffic controller Richard Labrie and manager of train operations Jean Demaitre. Harding, Labrie and Demaitre were were handcuffed and frog-marched to prison. All three have pleaded not-guilty to 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death.  Jury selection is currently under way.

I’ve been writing this on and off for several months, since I attended a music benefit for the rail workers. As I began looking into their story, in injustice and plain stupidity of their prosecution became alarmingly evident. I could probably write a book on this one incident (and hopefully someone is already doing that), but out of consideration for my readers, I’m going to make this as short as possible. As those of you who read Confined Space have probably guessed, this is going to be an article on the stupidity of blaming workers for this tragedy when as we will see, there was a train-car load of other systemic causes that, if not addressed, will result in many more of these catastrophes.

Also note that I will frequently refer to Andrew Hopkins’ book Lessons From Longford: The Esso Gas Plant Explosion which lays out many of the principles of conducting a root cause investigation of the systemic causes of an industrial disaster.

Chemicals used in Deepwater Horizon spill are harmful to people, study proves; finally

By Charles Digges - Bellona, September 25, 2017

Last week, the National Institutes of Health in the United States released a report that confirmed people living along the Gulf of Mexico who were very ill, but who for seven years have been told to keep quiet up about it, weren’t crazy after all.

Thousands of them had broken out in rashes. They had been coughing up blood, wheezing, experiencing migraines, and were tormented by burning eyes and memory loss. Others were surprised by heart aliments, kidney problems, liver damage, blood in their urine and discharge from their ears. Still others muddled through cognitive decline and anxiety attacks. Many went on to die.

Yet barely anyone in a position of authority was willing to believe they were sick at all. Often, even their own doctors told them that it was all in their heads.

What these people had in common was that they had been cleanup workers on the BP’s Macondo well disaster, which for 87 days in 2010 poured 4.9 million barrels oil into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded that April 20 off the coast of Louisiana. It was the worst oil spill in US history.

Some 47,000 people responded to the blow out. Fishermen rushed their boats into the fray to coral the oil at sea. Others worked to siphon it off beaches in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. In other cases they burned it off the surface of the ocean in flames visible from space.

All of these workers toiled under a haze of chemicals dumped from the skies to bombard the ballooning slick and sink it to the bottom of the Gulf. In most cases, they didn’t have protective gear – BP and its contractors told them they didn’t need it.

The US Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency backed that up – they, too, had been assured by BP and Corexit’s manufacturer, Nalco Environmental Solutions, that it was safe.

Last week, the National Institutes of Health finally told them, after a seven-year wait, that it wasn’t.

We Must Protect the Workers Who Will Rebuild after Hurricane Harvey

By Kathleen Rest - Union of Concern Scientists, September 5, 2017

Storm waters in the greater Houston area are subsiding and the scale of devastation and destruction is staggering. The personal loss, pain, and suffering of families and impacted communities are immeasurable.

As the immediate crisis of saving lives and providing emergency aid and shelter to many thousands winds down, the daunting task of recovery, cleanup, and rebuilding of homes, businesses, and essential infrastructure begins. And, with my 25-plus years of work and experience in occupational health and safety, I am all too aware of the myriad hazards, exposures, and risks workers will be facing in this long-term effort.

Safeguarding workers’ health and safety must not be an afterthought.

The work: dirty, dangerous, and risky

Post-disaster recovery, cleanup, and reconstruction operations present a panoply of risks and dangers—with workers on the front lines.

Some workers will be tasked with the highly hazardous task of getting the area’s oil refineries and chemical plants back on-line. Start-up operations can result in uncontrolled releases and explosions that place the workers and surrounding communities at grave health and safety risk. The US Chemical Safety Board has issued a safety alert, urging caution and providing a checklist for evaluating systems, tanks, instrumentation, and equipment before start-up.

Other workers will be working in and around the 13 highly contaminated Superfund sites that have flooded and sustained storm damage. As of this writing, the EPA reports that 11 additional Superfund sites remain inaccessible to response personnel, so the extent of damage is unknown.

And many if not most workers in the greater Houston area will be doing jobs that, at least in the short term, only compound the well-recognized hazards, exposures, and risks they generally encounter.

Hurricanes and super storms like Harvey, Sandy, and Katrina just pile on additional hazards, including mold, mold, and more mold; water contaminated with chemicals and waste; working in and around unstable structures; and carbon monoxide poisoning due to the use of generators in poorly ventilated areas—an all-too-common event in post-disaster work. These are all on top of the falls, cuts, burns, amputations, and machine and musculoskeletal injuries that are all to frequent in today’s workplaces.  And silica, asbestos, and lead just add to the mix of dangers involved in demolition operations that will be ongoing in Houston. (You can also read my prior commentary on workplace injury, illness, and fatality tolls.)

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has established protective health and safety standards for many of these hazards, and they remain applicable even during disasters.  Employers remain responsible for complying with these protections.

In the early days of a disaster, OSHA rightly focuses on compliance assistance (outreach, information, and training for employers and workers). But it should shift to enforcement as the immediate crisis passes. We have seen, for example, the consequences of a lack of enforcement of required respiratory protection after 9/11, leading to the illness and death of workers exposed to toxic dust.  Federal agencies have resources and information about these general hazards, as well as disaster-focused resources and information for employers, workers, and the public (including here, here, and here).

While helpful, information on a website is not enough; workers, communities, and the impacted public will need resources and action on the ground. And this will surely strain the capacity and resources of agencies that must continue to meet their existing responsibilities at the same time.

Meet the L.A. Household Worker Taking On the Toxic Cleaning Industry

Article and Image by Brooke Anderson - In These Times, September 6, 2017

In 2016, after more than a decade of intense struggle, a statewide coalition of domestic workers won a landmark Domestic Worker Bill of Rights in California. The legislation establishes overtime pay for some of the lowest paid and most exploited workers in California’s massive economy.

Now this scrappy but increasingly influential coalition of mostly first-generation Latina and Filipina immigrant women is taking on the powerful consumer cleaning product industry that is poisoning their bodies, children, air, water and soil.

Like many of the women who mop floors and scrub toilets in other people’s homes, when María first started cleaning, she developed a nasty rash and cough, among other ailments. Now she’s one of the leading organizers behind an effort to require that the consumer cleaning product industry include ingredient lists so housecleaners can identify health risks.

While people have made and cleaned homes for tens of thousands of years using natural cleansers and disinfectants—from vinegar and citrus fruit peels to rosemary and thyme—the production of synthetic chemicals skyrocketed after World War II. Of the at least 80,000 chemicals on the market in the United States today, tens of thousands have never been tested by the Environmental Protection Agency. Studies show that our bodies—including our breastmilk—are awash in these chemicals, leading to a host of health issues like asthma and cancer. Now, women like María are fighting back.

While in Los Angeles, Calif., I sat down with María, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, in light of recent immigration attacks and the many reprisals workers face for speaking out.

Swiss Company Ineos Face Serious Challenger To ‘Draconian’, ‘Anti-Democratic’ High Court Injunction ‘Engineered To Buy The British Law To Force Through Fracking’

By Joe Corre - Talk Fracking, September 7, 2017

Petrochemicals giant Ineos face a serious  challenge  at their High Court injunction hearing at 10:00 am on Tuesday, 12th September 2017 at the Royal Courts of Justice, The Strand, London, WC2A 2LL.

Joe Corré, the environmental activist and son of Dame Vivienne Westwood, is stepping forward. Corré is no stranger to standing up against the fracking industry. With Talk Fracking he has been campaigning against fracking for six years to inform people about the true dangers and risk of fracking.

An interim injunction was granted to Ineos by Mr Justice Morgan on 31st July 2017 in a secret hearing with no other party present to the full and true picture and to oppose the making of this oppressive injunction against any unknown person campaigning against  fracking  or helping others who are  campaigning  and protesting.

Ineos boasts that their injunction is the most wide-ranging injunction of its kind secured by the shale industry and the first issued pre-emptively before a company had planning permission to start drilling where there was  in fact no campaigning  activity at any of their sites.

The injunction covers 28 exploration and development licences across 1.2 million acres, including two proposed shale gas sites in Derbyshire and Rotherham but also their entire supply chain.

Corré has made submissions to Ineos lawyers, Fieldfisher, via legal firm Bhatt Murphy to object and oppose the continuation of this  unprecedented and oppressive order.

“Someone has to stand up against these disgusting bully boy tactics, they are trying to poison us and buy the British law,” he says.

The announcement in January of Ineos’s plans for Marsh Lane in Derbyshire met with dismay by local people and others  as the site is near a school and less than 400m from several homes.

After years of decline, the crippling disease is rebounding, worse than before

By Dan Radmacher - Appalachian Voices, August 22, 2017

“There is an epidemic here in Southwest Virginia, in Eastern Kentucky, in Southern West Virginia,” says Ron Carson, director of the Black Lung Program at Virginia’s Stone Mountain Health Services. “Miners are getting sicker and dying at a much younger age. A lot of people are going to be shocked when they see the numbers.”

Carson has been working with researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to put hard numbers to this deadly resurgence, and he says they have been astounded by the number of cases Carson’s clinic is seeing of progressive massive fibrosis cases, the most serious form of black lung disease.

In a report from similar research released last December, NIOSH researchers found a cluster of 60 such cases from one Eastern Kentucky radiology practice over a nine-month period — three times the number of cases the national Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program found from 2011 to 2016.

Around the same time the NIOSH report was released, an NPR investigation by Howard Berkes aired that identified more than 1,000 cases of progressive massive fibrosis during the past decade — 10 times the number officially recognized by the federal government.

Complicated black lung is debilitating in the extreme, Carson says. “Some young miners come in to this clinic in wheelchairs because they don’t have enough breath to walk,” he says. “We have miners at age 28 with eight years of exposure to coal dust waiting for a lung transplant.”

Progressive massive fibrosis, like other forms of black lung disease, cannot be cured and is eventually fatal. Carson says the clinic focuses on easing the miners’ suffering. “We make every effort to give them a better quality of life,” he says. “Therapists do pulmonary rehab and work on patient education. They talk to them about winterizing their lungs — cold air has drastic effects on this condition.”

Jill Hutchison, the first director of the Black Lung Clinics Program in West Virginia and retired CEO of the West Virginia Primary Care Association, said the number of miners treated in West Virginia’s 18 black lung clinics increased by 26 percent last year.

“Black lung is not going away,” she says. “It is an ugly disease. It’s heart-breaking to watch a miner struggle just to breathe. The clinic’s helping black lung patients use medicine, dietary recommendations and exercise to improve their quality of life as much as possible.”

Big Oil’s Bi-Partisan Helpers: a Refiner’s Fire 5 Years Later

By Steve Early - Counterpunch, August 4, 2017

Five years ago, my wife and I moved to Richmond, CA and soon learned about the local emergency response protocol known as “shelter in place.”

When large fires break out in Bay Area refineries, like the century old Chevron facility near our house, first a siren sounds. Then public officials direct everyone nearby to take cover inside. Doors must be closed, windows taped shut, if possible, and air conditioning turned off.

August 6th is the fifth anniversary of such self-help efforts in Richmond. On that day in 2012, we looked up and saw an eruption worthy of Mount Vesuvius. Due to pipe corrosion and lax maintenance practices, a Chevron processing unit sprang a leak. The escaping petroleum vapor reached an ignition source. This led to a raging fire that Contra Costa County (home to four refineries) classified as a “Level 3 incident,” posing the highest level of danger.

Nineteen oil workers narrowly escaped death at the scene of the accident. It sent a towering plume of toxic smoke over much of the East Bay and fifteen thousand refinery neighbors in search of medical attention for respiratory complaints, While local property values took a hit, Chevron stayed on track to make $25 billion in profits that year.

Senator Backed by Rail Companies Introduces New Bill That Would De-Regulate Rail Industry

By Justin Mikulka - DeSmog Blog, July 25, 2017

A new bill by one of the rail industry’s favorite senators looks to change how the industry is regulated to allow “market forces to improve rail safety.” In June, Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), who happens to chair the Senate Surface Transportation Subcommittee, introduced the Railroad Advancement of Innovation and Leadership with Safety (RAILS) Act.

In essence, the bill seeks to shift the rail industry toward a self-regulatory — and more difficult to enforce — approach to safety known as “performance-based regulation,” an effort first reported by DeSmog after a Congressional hearing in May.

In that hearing, Rep. Bill Shuster (R-PA) advocated for performance-based regulations for safety, saying that government should “allow the railroad industry to keep more of their profits.” That's what you should expect when moving to a system relying on market forces to improve safety.

Speaking of market forces, it should come as no surprise that the top donor to Senator Fischer’s election campaigns is rail company Union Pacific. Or that four of her top eleven donors are rail companies, which include Berkshire Hathaway (owner of rail company BNSF), Norfolk Southern, and CSX.

That helps explain why she is pushing to allow the industry to self-regulate via performance-based regulations. Even in a pro-industry opinion piece in the publication RailwayAge, written by a former employee of rail lobbying group, the Association of American Railroads, it wasn’t possible to sell the bill without noting that it allows industry to regulate itself:

…performance-based safety standards mean rather than the [Federal Railroad Administration] prescribing particular actions, such as mileage-based brake tests and specific operations and maintenance procedures, the agency would specify a safety outcome — such as a maximum accident-type rate or component failure rate — and allow each railroad to devise its own cost-effective means of achieving that target.”

What could go wrong if you allow each railroad to devise its own cost-effective means of achieving safety? Let’s take a look at Exhibit A: Lac-Mégantic.

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