Leaking oil from Lac-Mégantic disaster affects nearby towns

Crude oil leaking from the train cars has already created issues outside of the town of Lac-Mégantic, and many are asking why trains were carrying dangerous cargo directly through a town's centre.

Critics ask why trains are carrying oil through populated areas

Firefighters continue to water train cars in order to keep the fire under control. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

As oil leaking from a derailed train in Lac-Mégantic, Que., travels downstream, many are asking why dangerous cargo was being routed directly through a populated town centre.

About 80 kilometres downriver from the town of Lac-Mégantic is the community of Saint-Georges, a town that draws its drinking water from the same river that passes by the site of the deadly explosions.

Since the explosion, the crude oil being carried by the train has leaked into the nearby waterways, travelling downstream to Saint-Georges.

Floating barriers have been set up to help prevent the oil from spreading. (CBC)

Fears that the water is contaminated with hydrocarbons have prompted authorities in Saint-Georges to draw water from a nearby lake instead of the Chaudière river.

However, the secondary source will not be able to supply the full 10,000 cubic metres of water used by the town every day.

Residents are being asked to reduce their water consumption for the time being.

Floating barriers have also been installed on the river to help block the hydrocarbons from contaminating the water, but it's unclear how long residents of Saint-Georges will have to wait before their water supply returns to normal.

As locals continue to deal with the immediate impact of the Lac-Mégantic crisis, others are asking questions about whether trains carrying dangerous cargo should be travelling through populated areas.

Should dangerous cargo be rerouted?

Fred Millar, an American-based consultant on hazardous train cargo, wonders why a train carrying crude oil was routed through a town’s busy centre.

"We have a law in the United States that says the railroads are supposed to choose the safest and most secure routes," he said.

Millar said fears of terrorist attacks, as well as train-related accidents, sparked concern about rail safety.

"We’ve had so many explosions and toxic gas releases with railroad cargos in the United States, that people are concerned," he said.

According to a former president of the Canada Safety Council, freight trains in Canada were rerouted several decades ago to travel outside of some major cities.

However, Emile Therien said small towns like Lac-Mégantic were left out.

"About 30 or 40 years ago there was a master plan in this country to take freight trains away from the town core of most cities ... but the small towns still see trains going right through their main streets," Therien said.

The head of environmental group, Equiterre, said outdated train cars may have played a role in the incident.

Stephen Guilbeault said grandfather clauses within federal regulations allow companies to use old trains that aren’t up to today’s standards.

"There has been a wave of deregulation in that sector, as in many other sectors, and the federal government has been very complicit in letting companies dictate the rules of the games," Guilbeault said.

Train's air brakes may have released

Quebec provincial police are investigating the train derailment, and authorities say it remains unclear what caused the train derailment.

A statement released Sunday by Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, said the company's thoughts were with those affected by the deadly explosion.

The company said it is possible the train's air brakes released after it was parked for the night, allowing it to roll out of control until it derailed at the centre of Lac-Mégantic.

"One fact that has emerged is the locomotive of the oil train parked at Nantes station was shut down subsequent to the departure of the engineer who had handled the train from Farnham, which may have resulted in the release of air brakes on the locomotive that was holding the train in place," said a statement released by the company.

On Sunday, authorities were able to gain access to the black box, known as the locomotive event recorder, at the site of the explosion.

It will provide information about the train's speed, brake applications, and throttle positions. Authorities have not said how long it will take to analyze the data.

Train corridor

The train carrying crude oil was headed east along the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway corridor. (Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway )